By Ed Runyan
Springtime is busy for robberies, and there have been a large number in Warren in recent days.
The most-recent crime statistics from the Warren Police Department, however, suggest that the problem has gotten worse over the past three years.
Lt. Jeff Cole, officer in charge and public-information officer for the department, said he believes robbery — a category of crime that generally involves use of a weapon — has risen since 2011.
But he’s unable to say why.
“I really try not to assume. I haven’t had someone say, ‘I did it because of this,’” he said, though one popular assumption is that people are stealing to feed a drug habit that increasingly includes heroin.
The Warren Police Department’s 2013 annual report says the city had 150 robberies in 2013, a significant jump from 111 in 2012 and 85 in 2011.
The 2013 robbery total was even higher than the 125 in 2010 and the 138 in 2009, when city finances forced the layoff of 20 police officers. Some people have theorized that criminals perceived the city to be more vulnerable at that time, which may have emboldened them or encouraged an influx of criminals from Detroit.
Mark Hines, a local volunteer who counsels drug-addicted inmates at the Trumbull County Jail, said recently he has no doubt that local robberies are increasing because of the prevalence of drug addiction.
“They’ll walk right into your home and rob you in broad daylight,” Hines said. “They’ll walk into the BP gas station and rob it in broad daylight. They’ll go into [stores] and fill up a cart and go out the fire exit and take stuff to the pawn shop.”
For the two managers of Convenient Food Mart at Elm Road and Larchmont Avenue Northeast, conditions in Warren led to the store having its first armed robbery in at least 20 years, said Nabil Banna. The robbery occurred in the middle of the night in early April.
Another manager, a woman popular with customers who goes by the name “Blondie,” said she thinks the increase in armed robberies is in step with the increase in drug use.
“You see a change in the clientele,” she said. “You can tell by looking at them who’s on drugs, who’s not. It’s sad when you see them looking through the cigarette can and picking out a cigarette butt.”
She added, “You see people who don’t have any money. There used to be jobs in the area. Now, there’s not.” She said it has changed the buying habits of her customers — they purchase fewer non-essential items, she said.
Police Chief Eric Merkel says the 2013 statistics contain some good news.
He thinks the reason the number of gun-crimes increased from 109 in 2012 to 139 in 2013 is because of enforcement: The department’s Street Crimes Unit, created when he became chief in the summer of 2013, works every day to take guns off of the street.
That same unit most likely is responsible for the number of drug charges and drug-paraphernalia charges rising dramatically in 2013 compared with 2012.
The chief also believes the Safe Streets Initiative the department began with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office late last year, which reached out to identified criminals and offered to help them lead a life without crime, has helped reduce shootings in the city.
“We’ve had people who’ve called and requested to get out of the lifestyle,” Merkel said.
Warren went four months without a homicide between Dec. 9 and April 8, when the first homicide of 2014 occurred.