A great deal of media attention of late has been on the reported rise in heroin overdoses across Massachusetts. In February, police in Lawrence, Methuen and Haverill conducted sweeping heroin-related arrests, and there have also been crackdowns on dealers and addicts in Fall River, Lynn and Boston.
But the fallout from heroin-related crimes and addiction is also being felt in more affluent cities and towns. And that fallout is in the form of increased house break-ins and burglaries in Belmont, Cambridge, and other middle class areas.
Belmont Police Assistant Chief James MacIsaac is behind the wheel. He came of age in Belmont, coaches a boys basketball team in his off-hours, and as assistant chief of police works to keep this town safe. We’re driving down an oak tree-lined street made narrower by jutting mounds of dirty snow. On each side of the road are the kind of single-family homes that scream “we’ve made it in life”. But, he says that doesn’t mean that the residents here are isolated from life itself.
"We remind people all the time we’re four square miles, we’re six miles from Boston, we’re inside one of the largest metropolitan areas when you look inside 128, so we’re not immune from the types of crimes that happen in other places. We’re a very mobile society," MacIsaac said.
Which sometimes means that crimes comes to you; sometimes the criminals are right in your midst.
"People have to realize that while it’s a vey nice community, a very safe community, we’re still subject to people who have opiate addictions, people who have heroin addiction and they’re looking for cash," said MacIsaac.
And some addicts are breaking into houses and apartments to find it. MacIsaac explained:
"They ring the bell, so that nobody’s home or they know that nobody’s home and they break a door or window or in some instances the doors have been open and have made it even easier for the people to get in."
MacIsaac steers his SUV down a bucolic boulevard of snow-covered trees. Over there is Belmont High School, where students are steered toward colleges like Harvard, Tufts or Williams; Where football players are heroes, and where a handful also fall between the cracks of great expectations.
"A large percentage of these crimes are the result of people that are opiate dependent or heroin dependent."
And McIsaac says Belmont has experienced a RASH of break-ins over the past year.
"Last Feb or March I believe we had eight maybe in those two months and then it kind of slowed down fore a while and then in September we had a couple and we really had an uptick in December, in January and into February of this year. One detective told me they had a gentleman who was working in their community and every time he went on a coffee break he would break into a house."
And the surge in heroin-opiate fueled break-ins is also being felt in other communities on this side of 128.
"When our detectives get together with other area detectives everybody has similar stories, similar breaks and similar patterns," said Stephen DeMarco, a Deputy Superintendent with the Cambridge Police Department. The last break in just happened on February 24.
Here’s how it plays out: there may be a knock on the front door, or someone rings the bell, but you don’t hear it because it’s all happening when you’re not home. Recent break-ins have been happening between Monday and Thursday during the daytime, DeMarco said.
The last break-in on Feb. 24 matched the same M.O. as the others, but here’s what’s interesting. The uptick in break-ins in various cities and towns surrounding Boston goes against the grain of a 25 year decrease in statewide property crimes, according to the Massachusetts Office of Public Safety.
Cambridge is no exception. Citywide housebreaks are down 31 percent, according to Demarco.
"There were 51 last year at this point in time. To this point in time we’ve only had 35," DeMarco said.
"In one particular area of the city we’ve seen what we’re calling a series of breaks that have specifics in it that our crime analysis unit has picked up on that we want to take a closer look at and that we are directing some extra patrols to that area."
That area is Cambridgeport. This neighborhood used to be called "The Coast" because its starts at Magazine Beach on the Charles River and stretches to Mass Ave. Pizza joints in this gentrified, middle-class section of Cambridge exist side-by-side new cafes. Apartment complexes are home to students at MIT, professors at Harvard, and young professionals.
A recent college grad working her first job showed me her Cambridge apartment, which was broken into in early February. She asked not to be identified, and for good reason.
"I left for work around 7:30 in the morning and my roommates were both home and around 9:30 or 10 my roommate left and about an hour later she got back and there were police in our apartment," she said. "Someone had heard or seen it and called the police and the police had actually gotten there before she did."
Cambridge detectives said that thieves targeting apartments in broad open daylight are often desperate and very specific in what they’re targeting.
"They took small electronics, several Apple products. They left everything large. They didn’t touch anything in the kitchen. It was laptops and things like that that could seemingly grab and put into a bag that they could walk out with without being very conspicuous."
In other words, things that can be sold easily. An analysis of Massachusetts state crime statistics finds that the surge in break-ins in working class cities like Fall River and Lawrence and middle class communities like Arlington, Belmont and Cambridge coincides with an increase in heroin and opiate arrests and overdoses across the Commonwealth.
"Here, in Cambridge, our overdose are up a little bit from January 2013. There were 14 overdoses. Of those 14 total over doses, four of them involved heroin," said Stephen DeMarco of the Cambridge Police.
Just 25 minutes by car up Mt. Auburn Street, I‘ve arrived and looking for a parking space in Watertown Center. This community –brought together by the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing manhunt— is not experiencing a rash of house breaks like those plaguing Cambridge, Belmont, Arlington, and parts of Somerville.
But like these cities and towns, life has a way of intruding on what we think of as ideal.
"You don’t think about this stuff happening in Watertown," said local businessman Brad Michaels.
"They had come up the other entrance, up these stairs was a big sign that says 'integrated Healing', kicked the door down, ransacked their office, and they kicked our door down off the hinges, stole checks," Michaels said.
They knocked over computers and cabinets scrounging for pain killers in the office next door. Michaels said police caught the thief using surveillance, as he had taken one of Michaels' brief cases and he was able to identify him.
Not too surprisingly, a suspect caught on video camera pulling a case stenciled with Michael’s initials, led to a quick arrest. But Watertown police captain Raymond Dupuis said the force is also on the lookout for thieves targeting automobiles in the area:
"Most of the cars that are broken into have unlocked doors. They’re not too many with broken windows. People searching for money or credit cards cause they have substance abuse problems and they’re looking for quick cash, quick money to purchase drugs," Dupuis said.
It’s a familiar description, said Assistant Police Chief in Belmont James MacIsaac, which detectives are close to making an arrest in the string of break-ins there.
"We have yet to charge the individual but it’s somebody that’s somewhat known to us, and it would fit this person’s MO if you will."
Meanwhile, police in all the affected communities said there are steps that you can take to try to keep your home drug-robber free. But, Stephen DeMarco of the Cambridge Police, said more fundamental is to get to know your community:
"Talk with your neighbors.You know, that’s the neighborly thing to do and that’s the thing we should be doing. To be looking after each other," DeMarco said.
DeMarco says non-communication among neighbors is a burglar’s greatest tool; a point that a recent victim of a break-in in Cambridge readily concedes:
"We don’t have direct connection with almost anyone in the building," the crime victim told me. "There was a message that went out to the owners saying that something had happened but if that message didn’t trickle down our neighbors didn’t even know. So they had no idea that it even happened."
This woman is staying with friends in a nearby town- too afraid to go back to the Cambridge apartment where she was living.
"We don’t really feel safe sleeping some place that a stranger has been through and gone through your things. Will they come back? They have been in our apartment and seen what they’ve left behind. And they know what we will likely replace. So, there’s always the fear that they’re going to come back for those things."
Meanwhile, police in six cities and towns on the Boston side of 128 are cross-checking histories, patterns and criminal records so try to bring an end to what they believe to be a heroin-opiate-fueled-burglary spree that has intruded even on the most idyllic of spaces.