In much of the country, including Stoughton, public perception of the crime rate is at odds with reality.
STOUGHTON — According to police data, Stoughton is a safer place than it was twenty years ago.
Yet many still claim that the 28,000-person suburb is increasingly a haven for drugs and violence.
In October, after The Enterprise reported an attempted armed robbery at a Central Street convenience store, Facebook users left more than 200 comments in a heated conversation about the incident in a popular public group.
One woman wrote that drugs and crime had changed Stoughton from the quiet town it used to be. Another woman suggested that Stoughton had caught “Boston’s bug” when it came to violent crime. One man wrote that the town’s safety problems were exacerbated by additional housing construction. The group’s administrator eventually turned off commenting for the post.
Earlier in October, after The Enterprise published an article about a man who robbed three people at an ATM in Stoughton Center, a Facebook user commented on the story saying “bums” from other cities were moving into vacant apartments and committing crimes.
In many ways, Stoughton is transforming. Politicians and business owners are attempting to revive the suburb’s economically troubled town center. The share of non-white residents has increased steadily in recent decades, according to the U.S. Census, with Stoughton’s black population nearly doubling between 2000 and 2010. But an increase in crime is not among the changes.
Compared to 2001, the earliest year the Stoughton Police Department provided data for, crime in 2017 was less common, and preliminary data for 2018 shows that a widely used aggregate crime statistic—calculated by adding up each incident of homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft in a given year—has only fallen further.
Similar data provided by the FBI shows a downward trend at the state and national levels over the same time period.
“By every empirical measure, crime is at a low which hasn’t been seen since the 1940s,” said Mitch Librett, a professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University, and a former police lieutenant in New York.
Yet many people across the nation incorrectly feel that crime is getting worse. Despite double-digit percentage decreases in national violent and property crime rates since 2008, most voters say crime has increased during that span, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.
Librett attributes the discrepancy to a widespread human fallacy: mistaking a short-term uptick—say, a flurry of muggings in the same month—for a long-term trend.
Selectman Stephen Cavey said that, as a policymaker, it’s best not to focus too much on anecdotes, which he feels are more easily circulated in the age of social media.
“If you make policies based on what happened to somebody’s great aunt, there’s really no guarantee that you’re going to make a smart decision,” he said.
John Bonney, a lieutenant and spokesperson for the Stoughton Police Department, also considers social media influential to the public perception of crime.
“I think it’s easy to look at a story about a crime on social media and have an angry reaction that it’s happening in your town,” he said. “Overall, the town is a safe town. It’s a great community to raise a family in and people who live here should be proud to live here.”
Even compared to other suburbs in the area, Stoughton stacks up as a safe community, said Librett. Avon, Randolph, and Holbrook all experience more crime than Stoughton, according to statistics cited by Librett, while nearby Canton and Braintree experience slightly less.
Librett said that while drug overdoses, particularly those caused by heroin and fentanyl, have had a pronounced impact on all communities in southeastern Massachusetts, the region’s violent and property crime statistics have not budged.
“Is there any evidence that Stoughton has become a more dangerous place?” Librett asked rhetorically. “No. That I can tell you.”
Staff writer Ben Berke can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Enterprise_Ben.