Cover Story

Putting East Side Crime in Perspective

Neighborhoods continue to search for ways to protect their homes

Providence Monthly Magazine ·

Someone once asked Slick Willie Sutton, the infamous bank robber, why he robbed banks. “I rob banks because that’s where the money is,” he said.

The same could be said for why people break into houses on the East Side.

The East Side has traditionally seen an uptick in crime during warmer weather. “You couldn’t walk, let alone drive in most of this area all winter,” noted a patrol officer, who was willing to speak although not for attribution. “Backyards were impassable and transporting anything from a home would have been difficult. It’s almost like there was a pent up demand for criminal activity that was released when the weather changed.”

“But what has also changed,” observed the same officer, “is that there is now a much higher degree of vigilance and awareness on the East Side over the past few months. Between the B&Es (Breaking and Entering) and Cheryl Simmons’ listserv, people have gotten engaged.”

Community Involvement
It couldn’t be more appropriate that Cheryl Simmons has become the unquestioned doyenne of crime statistics on the East Side, as well as the chief curator of any public discourse on the subject that follows. About five years ago, Ms. Simmons was at home when her house on President Avenue was broken into. While many others in this unfortunate situation would be more likely to flee to the burbs or join the rising chorus of frustrated victims, Simmons decided something could and should be done.

The result is a listserv of over 1,000 to whom she sends out almost daily East Side crime reports and then edits the wide range of debate that then ensues among her followers. The recent statistics, unfortunately, make for sobering and sometimes frightening reading, though Simmon’s listserv is also generally the first to report the good news too, say when a potential miscreant is scared off, or, as been the case recently, a perpetrator has been caught by the police. In its few years of existence, Simmons' listserv has become a must read for anyone who is concerned about local crime here on the East Side.

“I was able to jump start the process in 2010,” recalls Simmons, “because my neighbors and I had already started a network over our concerns about a new RIPTA bus line that was being proposed for our quiet residential street. Our growth was 100% word of mouth. Initially we offered weekly reports, which were much more detailed in part because an intern in the police department was given the assignment to work with us. We even ran some almost real time reports of crimes in progress. Unfortunately in her enthusiasm, she allowed some important details of a crime to leak out prematurely and so the practice had to be reorganized.” 

What replaced the initial information flow was something called, which is akin to what the ProJo used to run (and many local papers and police departments still do) called Police Logs. “The hope is that patterns will emerge and neighbors will learn tips to communicate questionable behavior to either the police or to their neighbors so we can better protect ourselves,” says Simmons. “For example a recent report documented some thefts where the perpetrators have been using ladders to enter homes from the second floor to circumvent alarms. Alerted to the new technique, neighbors hopefully became more aware of suspicious behavior of this type.”

An integral aspect of her daily reports is the wide range of feedback, often fascinating to read, that the site produces. Simmons curates resident responses in an effort to keep the discussions both civil and useful. As expected, every possible point of view has emerged on what appears to be a significant resurgence of East Side break-ins. One irate reader calls for curfews from 10pm to 6am. Another advocates for a march on City Hall. Another suggests withholding taxes. Others lament what they call a “catch and release” judicial system that puts the bad guys right back on the streets. Most, while acknowledging the decade long cutback of officers, still plead for more policing of our neighborhoods.

On the other side, one resident suggests nothing will change until something is done about solving the problem of poverty. Others reflect it is nothing more than the reality of contemporary urban life. But regardless of one’s position on what needs to be done, there is no question Simmons has performed an important community service by establishing a forum for participants to express their views. Often, useful information about security systems or best practices from other cities appears on the site as well.

The degree to which crime has become the current dominant issue on the East Side was demonstrated by the recent two-hour crime meeting that was convened at Nathan Bishop and moderated by Tim Murphy that attracted over 100 participants on a hot August evening. In attendance was Mayor Elorza, Public Commissioner Stephen Pare, Police Chief Hugh Clements and the newly appointed head of the two East Side Districts, Lt. Joseph Donnelly. While the tenor of the meeting was respectful to the police, the community’s frustration was perhaps best articulated by one resident who after hearing a list of do’s and don’ts from the police, responded with “We don’t want to hear what we need to do. We just want it to stop.”

The level of current neighborhood frustration has produced at least one new, and controversial, initiative. Residents in the upper Elmgrove Avenue, Upper Cole, Harwich, Westford and Wingate area actually hired a private security company to patrol about a dozen streets to supplement regular police coverage. Bart Catalane, a resident of the area, funded the initial patrol service and is trying to gauge if there is enough interest to continue the initiative.

Lt. Donnelly welcomed the patrols. “They drove around and were visible, or they were parked in front of a home for awhile. It showed a presence and that’s an important deterrent,” he says.

A few participants on the listserv, however, worry that in addition to the obvious expense to residents already paying high taxes, an unintended consequence might be for the police to shift efforts to other areas of the city which lack the additional coverage. Still, Brown clearly has invested additional resources in protecting the areas around their campus with some success.

Apparently buying additional security coverage is an expanding phenomenon in areas where budget cuts have limited police resources. The NY Times recently profiled a public/private partnership on steroids in New Orleans. There’s a super successful 39-year-old entrepreneur named Sidney Torres who made a fortune as the founder of a sanitation company that cleaned up much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. He invested almost $400,000 of his own money after more than 60 robberies took place in the fancy French Quarter neighborhood where he lived. Three armed officers would zig zag around a 78-block area in militarized golf carts similar to vehicles he had used in his successful clean-up operation. Embedded GPS chips in each chassis allowed handlers to redirect the vehicles to crime situations in real time. The New Orleans experience is dramatically outsized compared to Providence of course, which also has a huge tourist investment to protect, but the City has received grants and is participating in what has become a rather unique public/private experiment.

Crime By the Numbers
But let’s get back to our own turf. So what exactly do the Providence statistics tell us? According to Lt. Donnelly in District 8, “from January to September in 2014, there were 154 B&Es and in 2015 for the same period there were 118, for a drop of 23%. In District 9, in 2014 there were 112 B&Es and in 2015 there were 110, for a drop of 2%. The noticeable problem is that in 2014 there were 16 B&Es in August and there were 25 in 2015.”

Violent crime is fortunately not an East Side problem. There have been several robberies and one assault, which compared to the rest of the city it’s not even a blip. And while most of the recent crime has been residential, local stores have been targeted as well. There was a major record theft at What Cheer Records on Angell Street in which all their Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin records were stolen in two separate incidents over the summer. Hope Street has been targeted as well. Line Daems, co-owner of Kreatelier and co-president of the Hope Street Merchants Association, reports though that they have instituted an emergency alarm system that notifies all of its members instantly with one email when a theft takes place. Recently police apprehended a chronic shoplifter on the street.

“One of the big problems on the East Side is that there are almost always contractors working on houses. Their ladders are accessible and were used in several second story break ins,” Donnelly continued. He explained that inside jobs happen and there’s little that can be done to stop them, like the hidden safe that was removed from an East Side residence or the housekeeper’s estranged husband who dropped off a check to his ex and left with silver and artwork. And then there’s the apocryphal story of some years ago on Benefit Street when a crew was stealing the copper drainpipes and gutters from a house and a concerned neighbor brought the robbers lemonade and water because it was a hot day! Unlikely to happen in today’s environment.

We spoke with several patrol units, again not for attribution, in District 8 (Mt. Hope, Hope and part of Blackstone) and District 9 (Fox Point, College Hill, Wayland and part of Blackstone) on their thoughts. “I can remember when people didn’t lock their doors on the East Side,” explained a veteran officer. “We would respond and ask questions and people often would have no idea when something was taken. You also had more kids playing outside and people seemed more aware of strangers.”

“The East Side always had a high incidence of ‘nuisance crimes’ – people leaving their phones, laptops, purses, gifts, etc. right in their cars – sometimes with the windows down. The annual influx of college students still brings those numbers up, but overall people seem to be paying more attention.”

Several officers reiterated the obvious fact that the Police Department is way down in manpower, and even with a new class, it still won’t compensate for all of the retiring officers.

Catching Criminals
Recently, the Police Department has made some significant progress. Kevin Robertson, age 49, was arrested the day after he attempted to break into a home on a Sunday morning on College Hill. Robertson is known to be responsible for at least two other break-ins in the same area on August 22 and 27.

Two other subjects who previously had juvenile records and are now legal, Justice McLaren age 18 and Laron Fortes, were charged with breaking and entering for an incident that occurred on College Hill. “Detectives investigating a series of robberies identified these two,” noted Donnelly, “and made the arrests.” Both subjects are still being investigated and could possibly be involved in additional break-ins on the East Side. They would often prey on students who frequently would not report the thefts.

And most recently, the police caught two gang members, Trey Pinkerton, 19, and Romolo Thompson, 18, in the Valley Street section of Providence after a brief car and foot chase. They were described as “major players” in the recent spate of East Side break-ins. “These were the subjects that were in very good shape and were responsible for several breaks using ladders and going in through second floor windows,” according to Donnelly. “Many homes that are alarmed do not have motion sensors on the second floor and windows that are not wired, which allows burglars to target bedrooms where jewelry is most often kept.”

The Take Away
After the recent meeting at Nathan Bishop, several ideas were discussed as useful “next steps.” There are plans of trying to convene an “East Side Summit” of neighborhood associations, being organized by Cheryl Simmons, Tim Murphy and Heidi Heifetz of the College Hill Neighborhood Association. The usefulness of a comprehensive crime watch was also discussed along with exploratory thoughts on hiring additional private security firms. Nothing formal has evolved as we go to press.

For their part, the police suggest that using your alarm, even when you are home, is probably the best deterrent and certainly at night. And, if your alarm has a panic button, keep it reachable. Getting an alarm and not just putting stickers in your window is probably a good idea, as well. Leave exterior lights on at night, and not just the front light, but side and backlights as well. Making sure that all first floor, basement, garage and storage shed doors are locked and that first floor windows are closed or have a “stop” which only allows the window to be raised to a certain height.

If you hear someone in your house, call the police and make a lot of noise. The police emphasized you should not confront someone in your home. Someone willing to take a chance entering your house, is clearly going to do whatever he can to insure he doesn’t get caught, and that can get dangerous.

They suggest noise or even tripping a burglar alarm will usually cause an intruder to leave. And, of course, loud is better than silent. “We were responding to a call last week and I swear you could hear their alarm from the inside of the house half a block away,” added an officer. “And, if your alarm has an outside speaker, the noise should also alert your neighbor to call the police.”

“In my opinion,” notes Donnelly, “the best deterrent are cameras. If there is a video camera, criminals will tend to avoid the home because they don’t want their picture taken. They are smart enough to know that it dramatically increases their chances of being arrested.”

Perhaps the recent murder in Fox Point puts things somewhat in perspective. For all our justified concern over the current level of property crimes, murders and assaults are rare occurrences here. For many of us, the first news of this one came from Cheryl Simmons’ neighborhood listserv, accompanied by a Brown University release (which the Projo did not initially report) informing us that police felt the killing was not random and did not seem to pose a threat to residents or students.

The takeaway from all this? Our best defense against crime remains obvious: common sense safety precautions (plus maybe a good security camera), timely and effective neighbor to neighbor communication, the proper funding to assure adequate police protection and finally the painful acknowledgement that maybe this is just the way it is in contemporary urban America.

Cheryl Simmons, ProJo, Lt. Joseph Donnelly, What Cheer Records, east side monthly, barry fain, steve triedman, east side crime, providence crime, break-ins, home invasions, robbery