Rising curve of crime statistics reversed in most Boston suburbs

Lynnfield has a problem. It's called US Route 1. The artery that snakes northward out of Boston is not only the apparent route of choice for legions of daily commuters. A dense array of auto dealerships, restaurants, and shopping centers also beckons the criminally intentioned.

''It's so easy to swing up here, and we're the first small town people hit coming out of Boston,'' says Lynnfield Police Chief Paul Romano. With a population just slipping past 10,000 and an understaffed police force, Lynnfield has seen its crime rate soar. Reported crime here increased by 82.4 percent in the first six months of this year, over the same period in 1983. That was the biggest rise for any municipality in Massachusetts, according to state Department of Public Safety (DPS) figures. Lynnfield Police say that things have returned to normal in the second half of this year. Still, says Chief Romano, most criminal activity there is due to out-of-towners, and most of them come from Boston.

Weston, the leafy, affluent suburb nestled at the mouth of the Massachusetts Turnpike and a handful of other direct links to Boston, has a different story to tell. Its police department is also hobbled by the budgetary limits affecting Lynnfield and other Massachusetts communities. Still, reported crime there sank 21.4 percent in the same period.

Up or down, easy answers about suburban crime can seem as scarce as robins in December. Ten years ago Weston's story might have seemed unusual and Lynnfield's closer to the norm. In those days, both crime rates and concerns about criminal activity ballooned, and terms like ''crime wave'' became part of everyday conversation. Of late, however, Lynnfield's tale of woe is the kind heard less frequently. For the fourth straight year, crime is falling in Massachusetts, as it is in the rest of the United States.

And the downward trend is growing. Recently, the DPS announced the biggest drop in ''serious'' crime - offenses ranging from auto theft to murder - for a six-month period since the department began keeping such records in 1977. Throughout the state, the 1984 figures represent a 13.7 percent drop from the rates of the previous year - a figure more than double the nation's 5 percent decline.

''I think we're finally breaking a big part of the rise in crime we'd been locked into for so long,'' says Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety Charles V. Barry. Except for a dip in 1972, Massachusetts, as well as the rest of the nation, was locked in a rising crime spiral for nearly a generation until 1981. A dramatic increase in suburban crime rates led the national crime surge in the '70s. Now suburban rates are falling faster than rural and metropolitan figures. Observers say that suburban crime, generally less violent than its urban counterpart, can be a type of weathervane for future criminal activity.

Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics suggest that crimes against property are as much as 15 times as prevalent in the suburbs as in the city. Those crimes - housebreaks, robberies, auto thefts, shoplifting - are also more readily affected by economic trends. Violent crimes such as murder and rape, the only two categories to show any increase over last year, are more resistant to economic influences, experts say. But the rise in economic indicators and the drop in the inflation and unemployment rates are not the only factors bearing on the crime figures. Another reason for the turnaround: Demographic trends favor a declining crime rate as the nation gets older and the age group tending the most toward criminal activity - those under 25 - declines. Stiffer sentencing, including mandatory prison terms for certain offenses, is also putting a damper on criminal activity, according to law enforcement officials.

Efforts during the 1960s and '70s to increase citizen vigilance are seen as a possible cause for the downturn. By some estimates, as many as 90 percent of Massachusetts communities have ''crime watch'' programs, which encourage residents to keep a lookout for suspicious behavior in the neighborhoods and report it to the police.

Perhaps ironically, the decline began during the era of Proposition 21/2, the property-tax-cutting law that put a squeeze on municipal budgets and adversely affected police protection in many communities. Although state funds have been provided to help restore local police forces to their earlier levels, many are still having to make do with less.

''We're over 60 men short on a 190-man force,'' complains Lynn Chief of Police Richard Fay. Twenty recruits have begun their training, but they won't begin their terms of duty until late February. ''What am I supposed to do until then?'' he asks.

Yet as far as crime is concerned, his city has done rather well. Lynn, a working-class community on Boston's North Shore, saw burglaries and robberies plummet in the period between November 1983 and June 1984. During that time, the Lynn Drug Task Force, a pilot program designed by the Essex County district attorney, was cracking down on a burgeoning local heroin trade. The plan called for about 5 percent of the Lynn police force to concentrate on drug dealers and buyers, following up on information provided by citizens through a ''Drug Hotline.''

''The results went beyond our wildest expectations,'' recalls Mark Kleimann, a researcher at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, who was chief analyst for the project. Not only were heroin dealers, who once plied their trade openly on the sidewalks, virtually cleared off the streets, but burglaries and robberies slumped by 41 and 35 percent, respectively.

Massachusetts law enforcement agencies apparently are taking the Lynn example to heart. Commissioner Barry says that other communities facing similar situations will soon be the target of such action. At the same time, a pilot drug and alcohol education program now focusing on elementary-school children in five towns will be expanded to include other communities.

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