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Violent crime in Mass. fell in 2017, but homicides rose

(Adobe Stock)

The rate of violent crime in Massachusetts fell last year for the sixth year in a row and dropped below national levels for the second time since 2016, according to FBI statistics.

In 2017, there were 358 incidents of violent crime per 100,000 people in Massachusetts, compared to the national rate of 394 per 100,000 people, according to data published in late September.

The FBI defines violent crime as homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault. The bureau said it calculates crime rates using figures voluntarily provided by law enforcement agencies, and tallies estimates when it doesn’t receive a complete year’s worth of data.

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The violent crime rate declined from 2016 levels even as the number of homicides and rapes rose, figures show. The increases, however, were not statistically significant, criminologists said.

Last year, there were 2.5 homicides per 100,000 people in Massachusetts, compared with 2 homicides per 100,000 people in 2016, the FBI said. Incidents of rape per 100,000 people rose slightly, from 31.4 attacks to 32.

“I don’t think it should be interpreted as a crime spike of any kind,” said Rebecca Stone, who teaches sociology at Suffolk University.

Shea Cronin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Boston University, said the state’s homicide rate has remained flat for more than two decades.

Since 1995, the homicide rate in Massachusetts has never been higher than 3.6 killings per 100,000 people, and it stayed far below national levels, FBI figures show.

“It’s not as if it can’t be pushed down further,” Cronin said. “It just becomes harder and harder at a certain point.”

In Boston, there were 58 homicides last year, compared with 55 in 2016, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office said. But the city’s violent crime rate fell by more than 9 percent during that same period, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

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During the first nine months of 2018, there were 39 homicides in Boston, compared with 41 murders in the same period in 2017, according to figures published Tuesday by the Boston Police Department.

Nonfatal shootings are also down, according to Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman. Through Sept. 30, there were 115 nonfatal shootings, down 29 percent from the same time last year, figures show.

Officers have seized 495 firearms, Boyle said. Last year, they took 744 guns off city streets, he said.

The FBI said it estimated 2017 Massachusetts crime rates from figures provided by 86 percent of the state’s 481 law enforcement agencies. Police departments in three-quarters of the state’s 351 cities and towns participated in the voluntary program, figures show.

Of those municipalities, the Western Massachusetts city of North Adams last year had the highest violent crime rate per 100,000 residents, FBI data show.

There were no homicides in 2017 in North Adams, but the city reported 15 rapes, 11 robberies, and 167 aggravated assaults. Mayor Thomas Bernard said the figures don’t tell the whole story, because they include some cases that couldn’t be substantiated because of a lack of probable cause.

The opioid crisis is responsible for some of the violence, city officials said.

“We do have a significant drug-addiction problem. North Adams is not different from any other community in that light,” said Michael Cozzaglio, the city’s police director.

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Bernard said the city is pursuing new policing strategies, including working with a trauma counselor who would accompany officers responding to scenes where mental illness or substance abuse may be issues.

North Adams has also begun removing the police force from the civil service system, which city officials hope will make it easier to recruit new officers.

Cozzaglio said the city is safe. “It’s a good community to live in,” he said.

Property crime across the state has dropped each year since 2011, the FBI figures show. There were 1,437 property crimes per 100,000 people last year, well below the national rate of 2,362 per 100,000 people.

The FBI defines property crimes as burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft, and arson.

The downward trend is notable, Cronin said, because property crimes are considered a secondary effect of the opioid crisis.

“We’re not seeing that kind of property crime going up . . . at least not here in Massachusetts,” he said. “I know that’s a concern in the law enforcement community.”

Property crime rates fell last year in every category except for arson, the data show. The arson rate per 100,000 people rose from 6.5 incidents in 2016 to 11 incidents last year, the FBI said.

The state fire marshal’s office, however, saw arson incidents decrease over the same period, falling from 742 to 671 cases.

Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire agency, said its arson figures are calculated from mandatory reports from local fire departments and don’t include estimates. The FBI’s arson figures, however, are derived from police departments who volunteered to share data with the bureau. Not all of the state’s police agencies participated, the FBI said.

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Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.