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Heroin addiction believed to be the motive behind summer burglaries in Amherst

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

Robert Rigo/Daily Collegian

The town of Amherst saw 24 break-ins to businesses and apartment buildings during the months of June and July alone, an uncharacteristically high number in comparison to previous years according to Captain Chris Pronovost of the Amherst Police Department.

Pronovost believes that the burglaries, which occurred mostly on Main and College Streets, were most likely committed in order to satisfy a heroin addiction.

“In the majority of these, they’re not large scores,” Pronovost said. “Whoever’s breaking in is settling for small amounts of money or easily sellable items…It seems consistent with someone who’s trying to support a drug habit.”

Often, the perpetrator took only $5 or $10 by stealing charity or tip jars, but left substantial damage to the building, Pronovost said. He added that, in his experience, this behavior indicates a heroin addiction, as the drug is particularly cheap and easy to obtain.

However, through collaboration with surrounding communities that have experienced a similar problem with burglaries, some suspects have been identified.

“Since we’ve looked (into the suspects) and been working with these other towns, (the burglaries) have declined,” Pronovost said. The detective bureau is currently in the process of investigating the case and he was optimistic that the suspects would be charged.

To curtail the burglaries, Amherst police have stepped up downtown patrols. Officers have tried to get out of their vehicles as much as possible, going undercover to keep an eye out for suspicious activity.

In addition, the police have been working with the community and discussing how residents and business owners can protect themselves from theft in the future. Their suggestions include removing bushes and other potential hiding places, leaving lights on, investing in security cameras, securing air conditioners and locking all doors and windows.

“The business community has been really receptive,” Pronovost said. “They’ve done a great job of (following) our suggestions, and also just talking with one another to share information and make sure everybody’s on board.”

Pronovost emphasized the importance of a community effort in solving the case. He has encouraged residents to alert the police immediately if they notice any suspicious activity. Additionally, Pronovost said that Amherst police try to keep the University of Massachusetts police well informed about the investigation so they know what to be on the lookout for.

AmherstBreakInsAlthough burglaries have been the main problem over the summer, Pronovost said that heroin addiction often leads to other crimes such as shoplifting and strong arm robbery. In this case, he said, there does not seem to be an effort to harm people. Instead, the criminals have avoided confrontation, often breaking into buildings and vehicles under the cover of night.

Pronovost estimated that, on average, previous stretches have seen less than half the number of burglaries. Whereas June and July saw 12 break-ins each month, Amherst typically would experience 12 burglaries over the extent of the entire summer, he said.

These troubling figures reflect the rising influence of heroin addiction in not just Amherst, but in communities everywhere, according to Pronovost.

“I don’t think any community, village, city, town is immune from this,” he explained. “It’s happening everywhere.”

However, he is hopeful that heroin addiction will be less of a problem in the future. Pronovost said communities are beginning to take active steps toward helping addicts recover. He cited the city of Gloucester, which recently adopted a new system for curbing heroin addiction, as one example.

“They started a program where if someone is addicted and they … want to end (their addiction), they can actually show up at the police department and the police department will find a place for them … to go into detox,” Pronovost said. “They can actually turn in some of their drugs if they have drugs on them, no questions asked.”

The program has been getting a lot of attention, he added, and may be used as a model for other towns. Pronovost said he is glad that heroin addiction is finally being addressed, because talking about the problem is the first step toward finding good solutions.

“It’s refreshing to see that there’s finally a conversation developing out there,” Pronovost said. “The elected officials, the medical community, law enforcement – everyone seems to finally be talking and trying to get to the root causes. That’s a good thing.”

Shelby Ashline can be reached at sashline@umass.edu and followed on Twitter @shelby_ashline.

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