By John Schwing
WESTPORT — Over several weeks this fall, Westporters may have worried their leafy sanctuary had become a den of thieves. Many of them juvenile offenders.
- On Sept. 17, the violent daytime car-jacking of an expensive sports convertible from the owner’s garage, shocked the town. Videos of the brutal incident went viral.
- Just over a month later, three teenagers were caught as they fled on Interstate 95 after an early-morning attempt to break into cars parked in a resident’s driveway.
- A day after that — three young adults and six juveniles — were charged with similar crimes in town, apprehended after causing chaos on local streets as they tried to elude police.
In all three incidents, the suspects drove to town in stolen vehicles, according to police.
- And in October and November, arrests were made in connection with five burglaries.
So, when the state on Oct. 16 released the “Annual Report of the Uniform Crime Reporting Program” for 2022, which showed both violent and property crimes statewide trending downward, some questioned whether the statistics matched a perception that public safety is faltering.
The state report indicates there was a 13 percent decrease in violent crime between 2021 and 2022 — from 6,272 offenses to 5,464.
The violent crime rate, per 100,000 state residents in 2022, was the state’s lowest in the last decade. Property crime offenses fell by 3 percent, according to the report.
And overall crime in Connecticut decreased by 4 percent in 2022, continuing a decade-long decline broken only by a pandemic-era spike in 2020, according to the state’s statistics.
What about Westport?
Well, the local numbers are “complicated.”
“Group A” offenses — violent crimes like murder, manslaughter, assault and rape, as well as property crimes like robbery, burglary, larceny/theft, motor vehicle theft and arson — rose from 2021 to 2022. The data show that in 2022 there were 2,357.7 Group A crimes per 100,000 compared to 1,745.1 in 2021, or 646 such crimes last year versus 500 the year before.
But there were also more Westport arrests in the Group A category last year, with 126 arrests in 2022 and 103 a year earlier. That averages out to an arrest rate of 458.4 per 100,000 last year vs. 359.5 in 2021.
While there were no murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, rape or human trafficking incidents reported in Westport either year, there was a ’22 uptick over ’21 in aggravated assaults (4 vs. 2), simple assaults (35 vs. 33) and intimidation (13 vs. 8).
But bottom line for all that data, after year-on-year comparisons are made: the average number of “offenses/incidents” for the most serious crime categories in both years is the same: 1.02.
As Lt. Eric Woods, the Westport Police Department spokesman pointed out, the data are only as reliable as the numbers reported — and numbers sometimes fail to indicate the full story.
“These numbers are reliant on the proper codes to be entered for every incident we respond to and subsequently changed to the appropriate offense once the investigation is complete,” Woods said in a statement to the Westport Journal.
The department’s previous records management system, which was replaced last year, had flaws, Woods said. The new system “is much better with reporting these stats and takes a lot of the human error out of the reporting component,” he said.
The new system, he said, “allows for the reporting of how the call was received and how the call was closed. Many times, a call is dispatched as one thing, but ends up being something totally different.”
That said, Woods acknowledged there was a higher number of Group A offenses in Westport last year than the year before.
Property crimes in Westport, which in light of recent high-profile incidents, have garnered more attention — and likely prompted more public concerns — spiked in some categories year over year and declined in others.
The number of stolen motor vehicles, as well as thefts from motor vehicles, both declined — 61 vehicles were reported stolen in 2022 compared to 95 in 2021; 59 thefts from motor vehicles were reported last year vs. 83 the previous year.
Local motor vehicle thefts are on track to decline again this year — 52 were reported as of two weeks ago — a trend that Woods said is likely due to repeated police messaging to residents that valuables should not be left in unattended vehicles and vehicles should be locked as a matter of routine.
But burglaries, vandalism and larcenies unrelated to motor vehicle incidents all increased.
Burglaries/breaking-and-entering cases rose to 42 cases last year from 37 in 2021; destruction/damage/vandalism to property shot up from 26 incidents in 2021 to 52 last year, and all other larcenies unrelated to motor vehicle incidents rose to 194 cases in 2022 from 76 a year earlier.
Among all the elements in the annual crime report that stand out as a source of frustration to both police and town officials is the number of crimes committed by juveniles — many under 18 years old — and the rate of repeat offenses by youths.
The series of recent high-profile car-theft incidents underscores that concern.
A 16-year-old, who will be tried as an adult because of the seriousness of the incident, was charged with two men in their 20s in connection with carjacking the Aston Martin on Bayberry Lane.
Three suspects nabbed on I-95 early Oct. 22 trying to flee the scene of attempted auto break-ins were teenagers, two of them under-18 juveniles.
Six of the nine people charged in connection with the Oct. 23 crime spree that triggered chaotic chases through town were juveniles.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas has spoken out several times about the issue of juvenile offenders and what he feels is a lack of accountability for their crimes handed down by the state’s juvenile justice system.
In July, he told a meeting of TEAM Westport, most of the recent uptick in Westport crime is caused by juveniles, ranging from about 14 years old to early 20s. Juveniles committing crimes also often have weapons, he said.
Statistics bear that out. Last year, Westport police arrested 20 juveniles for Group A offenses compared to 11 a year earlier.
While the crime increase may, in part, be caused by issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Koskinas placed most of the blame on the state’s juvenile court and corrections system.
“Kids don’t go to jail any more,” he said. Because of changes in the law and court delays, juveniles have the opportunity to commit other offenses before facing a court hearing and possible incarceration.
“How the state handles juveniles is concerning,” the chief added.
Police Lt. Anthony Prezioso, speaking at a September public forum convened in the wake of the Bayberry Lane carjacking, reiterated police officials’ frustration with some criminal justice reforms. Several years ago, the system was refocused from a punitive approach to a more reform-based practices, making it difficult to place juvenile offenders in detention, he said.
While the juvenile justice system works for 98 or 99 percent of the youth who run afoul of the law, “I just think it creates a huge loophole for that 1 or 2 percent of motivated offenders,” he said, calling it a “revolving door.”
“They have learned what we can and cannot do,” Prezioso said.
And Jimmy Izzo, chairman of the Representative Town Meeting’s Public Protection Committee, agreed, citing what he called a “lack strong laws from our legislature for juveniles committing these crimes.
“For example, the car chase we saw last month the driver was 14 and passenger 12,” he said. “One had a location ankle brace on from a previous charge. That was cut off.”
“A lot of these car thefts and break-ins are committed by ‘repeat offenders’ as they know the law is in favor of the juvenile,” Izzo said.
To address that issue, he added, “The legislature needs to re-evaluate their current position on juvenile crimes and punishment, as well as the Police Accountability Act that was put into place a few years back.”
Westport vs. neighbors
Here’s 2002 data from the state’s uniform crime report for neighboring communities:
Westport: 2,357.7 Group A offenses and 458.4 arrests per 100,000. Average number of offenses/incidents — 1.02.
Weston: 558.6 Group A offenses and 68.6 arrests per 100,000. Average number of offenses/incidents — 1.02.
Wilton: 1,650.6 Group A offenses and 899.3 arrests per 100,000. Average number of offenses/incidents — 1.08.
Fairfield: 3,038.1 Group A offenses and 1,093.3 arrests per 100,000. Average number of offenses/incidents — 1.12.
Norwalk: 4,251.7 Group A offenses and 1,609.1 arrests per 100,000. Average number of offenses/incidents — 1.16.
For complete state crime-analysis data for 2022, as well as earlier years, plus town-by-town reports, click here.
With reporting by the Connecticut Mirror.