Eintime Conversion for education and research 10-14-2009 @ 19:49:37
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Crime increases in some areas as economy fails

By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY

FITCHBURG, Mass. — Nothing about the failed bank robbery here earlier this month was ordinary.

The suspect, a 51-year-old woman, does not fit the typical criminal profile. The weapon, a crudely assembled fake bomb — a tangle of wires protruding from a handbag — is not often a weapon of choice. And the demand, $50,000, was relatively modest by some criminal standards.

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The only thing about it that seemed to make sense to local Police Chief Robert DeMoura was Maria Oliva's explanation when she was caught a short distance from Rollstone Bank & Trust.

Frustrated by her inability to find a job, DeMoura says, Oliva told police she was pushed to the breaking point. The chief is not defending her alleged act, for which she has been charged. Yet it is only the latest in a rising number of offenses in this small northern Massachusetts city that DeMoura links to the failing economy.

Crime analysts differ over whether an economic downturn always precedes increasing crime. Since summer, when the first financial giants started to fall on Wall Street, law enforcement officials have been tracking domestic violence and property offenses — robbery, burglary and theft — for signs of trouble.

In the past 2½ months, Fitchburg has been hit by 22 robberies, an unprecedented number for any similar time period in a city where, the chief says, three or four robberies a month are the norm. Some of the targets have been stores where offenders have taken food and clothing in addition to money.

Thefts from cars have jumped by 164 from last year and car thefts have more than doubled. "This is something we've never seen before," the chief says. "There has to be some correlation" to the economy.

Abuse calls rose

So far, anecdotal evidence suggests crime is increasing in some communities, though the FBI's 2008 crime report from thousands of jurisdictions across the country will not be completed until next fall.

An October survey of 180 law enforcement agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found that 75% cited a recent rise in at least one category of property crime.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline, an advocacy operation partially funded by the federal government, reported a 21% increase in calls for help in September and 18% in October from the same periods last year. There was no increase in November, but spokeswoman Retha Fielding says the "only thing we can put a finger on is a change in the economy" for the increases.

"We're not saying that the economy is causing domestic violence; we're saying it is putting more stress on families where violence is occurring," Fielding says.

Alfred Blumstein, a Carnegie Mellon University criminologist, says it may take a year or two to determine whether the economy has driven more people to crime.

The most vulnerable portion of the population, Blumstein says, are young adults "at the margins," many of whom have already been in trouble with police and trying to move into the workforce.

David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the demand for illegal drugs drives crime more than a sagging economy. Major surges in crime, he says, have been traced to Prohibition and to the cocaine and crack epidemic of the late 1980s and '90s.

"The public concern is that a tidal wave is coming," he says. "Unless it is being driven by some other drug epidemic, that's not going to happen."

Follows economic woes

In Fitchburg, an old mill town along the Nashua River, the empty factories and shuttered businesses are more commonly blamed for the city's recent crime troubles.

"This all absolutely follows the economic problems," says Worcester County District Attorney Joseph Early, whose jurisdiction includes Fitchburg and who has seen property crimes rise in other areas. "Desperate people do desperate things."

John Shammas, 58, whose Fitchburg restaurant was robbed at gunpoint last month, believes the economy is responsible for a local crime wave that "is out of control."

He says the incidents have instilled fear among his employees. "It's not just about the money," he says. "We're all having hard times."

The Dec. 5 attempted robbery of Rollstone bank is an unusual story of financial desperation, police say.

Oliva allegedly entered the bank with a note and a "large bag," according to the police report. "The note said she had a bomb and she wanted $50,000. If the police were notified then they would die," the report says.

Apparently flustered when asked to remove her hat and glasses, Oliva allegedly turned and walked out.

After she was arrested, police say she confessed.

"Her reason was one of desperation and despair," according to the police report, which noted that she had been out of work for "an extended period of time."

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