Local chiefs don’t foresee crime spike
By Taryn Plumb
After a long run around the track, the hurdle has been cleared for casino gambling in the state. But now the real strenuous work begins.
Signed into law by Gov. Deval Patrick on Nov. 22, the state’s new gambling law establishes a whole new set of administrative entities and bureaucracies – chief among them, new law enforcement jurisdictions, procedures and hierarchies.
Still, despite the new controls that will eventually be put in place, local police chiefs say they don’t anticipate any huge spikes in criminal activity when casino doors finally open – assertions that appear to be backed up by crime statistics in Connecticut, which has been home to casino gambling now for 20 years.
According to the 100-plus-page bill that’s been more than a decade in the making, a division of gaming enforcement will be set up in the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, and a gaming enforcement unit will be established by the State Police.
The colonel of the State Police will assign offers to that unit, and the soon-to-be-established five-member, independent gaming commission will reimburse their expenses up to $3 million. Per the new law, that unit, along with the attorney general’s division of gaming enforcement, will handle investigations into, and prosecution of, allegations of criminal activity in gambling establishments or related the games themselves.
As for day-to-day police services, general response calls and emergencies that come up at the casinos and on their grounds, local police will hold concurrent jurisdiction with state police.
Ultimately, Palmer Police Chief Robert Frydryk said he is “very pleased” with this role local law enforcement will play at the casinos. “Because it is a business in our community, we should have some say in policing the casino,” he said.
The situation plays out a little differently in Connecticut. According to Lt. Leonard Bunnell of the police department in Montville, Conn. – which is home to the village of Uncasville and Mohegan Sun – the Mohegan reservation is State Police jurisdiction. Local police have no authority there, Bunnell said, and only respond to situations at the casino when asked to back up the State Police.
Overall, he noted a “trickle-down effect” from the casino, which was established in 1996 and generates “more of everything.”
But based on long-term statistics, the gambling facility hasn’t had as much of an impact as Massachusetts casino opponents fear.
Uniform crime reports for Montville in 1997 (the year after Mohegan opened) show one case of murder; three cases of rape; six incidents of robbery; 62 cases of aggravated assault; 74 incidents of burglary; 154 larceny cases; and 18 motor vehicle thefts.
Three years later, in 2000, there were no cases of murder or rape; robberies decreased to four incidents; aggravated assault fell to 49; larceny to 126; and motor vehicle theft to 15. Burglary cases, on the other hand, increased to 84.
And in 2009 (the most recent numbers available), there were no incidents of murder; two cases of rape; seven cases of robbery; 11 aggravated assaults; 42 burglaries; 94 cases of larceny; and 13 motor vehicle thefts. (All, except for burglaries, down from 1997.)
Meanwhile, cases of simple assault, arson, forgery counterfeiting, fraud, embezzlement, stolen property and vandalism have gravitated up and down between 2003 and 2009, but with an overall downward trend. And there have been just a handful of sex offense cases each year between 2003 and 2009.
Drunken driving arrests have also wildly fluctuated; in 2003, there were 148; in 2007, 53; and in 2009, 130.
Ultimately, “all kinds of things may spin off from a casino,” said Brimfield Police Chief Charles Kuss. Even so, he said, “It’s not going to be bedlam. I’m not super, super concerned about a sudden spike in wild crime in any of these locations, and I don’t think any of my fellow chiefs are, either.”
Also, he stressed that the major casinos have a security staff that is “extremely well trained, seasoned and experienced.”
“They’re very serious about their security,” he said, adding that they will represent a security force as large as any local police department.
However, he did acknowledge that, “there will be issues. Anytime you have 10 to 15,000 people a day in the same space, things happen.”
In addition to Mohegan Sun, which has long made a point of its intentions to site a casino just off Palmer’s MassPike exit, proposals have surfaced in Springfield (from Las Vegas-headquartered Ameristar Casinos, Inc.); in Brimfield (from MGM); and in Holyoke (from Hard Rock International).
Ultimately the legislation will allow for three resort-style casinos and one slot parlor in Massachusetts – with one casino to be licensed in the southeastern part of the state, another around Worcester or Boston, and a third to the west. Moving forward the gaming commission will be established, and will be responsible for issuing licenses and dealing with other major issues related to casinos.
But wherever a casino ends up, Frydryk noted that, “clearly it’s going to have an impact on our community.”
Still, both he and Kuss agreed that the biggest issue will likely be increased traffic and traffic-related crimes and civil infractions such as speeding or drunk driving (as well as car crashes either on town roads or on casino grounds).
Still, if Mohegan is granted the license and a ramp is built straight from the turnpike to the Palmer site, that could largely minimize traffic issues, Frydryk said. If Palmer ends up being an abutting community to a casino in Brimfield or Holyoke, meanwhile, he said he doesn’t expect downtown to become heavily gridlocked.
Kuss, for his part, noted other factors to consider, such as an increase in timeshares or condos, golf courses, and music venues, and also a “nexus” between the flea market and a casino. Meanwhile, Route 19 and Route 20 would likely see a few hundred extra cars a day, based on Mohegan’s projections of 8,000 to 10,000 trips per day to a casino.
In planning, the department – as well as town officials – have been in discussion with communities of similar sizes with casinos, including Connecticut, but also French Lick, Ind. and Tunica, Miss.
Still, even with anecdotal and statistical evidence from other communities, and various studies and reports, it’s difficult to predict just what the impacts will be.
“Police service always been a reactive service, but you try to look forward and plan as best you can,” said Kuss. “We have to make sure we’re ahead of the curve, or at least on the curve.”
Frydryk agreed that it would be “wise” for Palmer and surrounding towns to invest in a consultant to report on potential issues and impacts to day-to-day governmental operations, schools, fire and police departments.
And as for advice from someone who knows?
“Prevention is key to any successful venture,” said Bunnell of Montville. “You have to be able to watch what’s going on and have good investigations, have good specialized services.”