Break-ins at businesses around Dorchester had increased by 70 percent in three years, and showed no signs of slowing. So Boston police Captain Timothy Connolly was not surprised when his bosses asked him what he planned to do to reverse the trend.
Connolly, the new commanding officer of C-11, one of the largest police districts in the city, was prepared with an answer. He pulled out his smartphone and showed his superiors a free messaging app he has been using to share information with business owners about robberies and break-ins and to provide photos and descriptions of suspects.
“We asked [business owners] if they would be interested in a pretty-close-to-real-time information sharing app,” Connolly said. “I said, ‘I don’t know what it looks like yet, I don’t know if it exists, but I’m sure there’s some sort of technology out there where I can group message you with information.’ ”
With help from the department’s analysts, Connolly has in the last couple of months used an app called GroupMe to facilitate communication between business owners in commercial districts throughout Dorchester. No burglars have been captured with the app, but business owners are now talking with each other about suspicious incidents in an effort to combat crime.
“It’s our own crime watch that is done electronically,” said Anh Nguyen, executive director of Bowdoin Geneva Main Streets, a neighborhood revitalization group. “Technology is helping us create a way for very busy people to connect with each other.”
Connolly is hoping to reverse the commercial robbery trend: There were 66 commercial break-ins last year, up from 39 in 2014. So far this year there have been 25.
“It is a reflection of the poverty in the neighborhood,” Nguyen said. “When you have high poverty rates you have crime.”
But Connolly said many of the break-ins have been connected to a few individuals he called “professional burglars.”
“It’s the same people over and over again,” Connolly said.
Of the business districts in his area, the Bowdoin-Geneva section of Dorchester has been the hardest hit by burglars, Connolly said. So he launched his experiment with the app with business owners there.
The same week that Pollo Centro, a Dominican restaurant with locations in Lawrence and South Lawrence, opened its doors in Dorchester, video surveillance caught a man trying to open the back door with a crowbar.
“He spent four minutes trying to break in,” said Miguel Santana, Pollo Centro’s owner.
Santana said Connolly sent a message through the app alerting other business owners in the area, urging them to keep their eyes open.
Moments later, based on the description of the suspect that was shared through the app, a restaurant owner reported that the business had been burglarized, likely by the same person, Santana said.
On March 6, an armed robbery occurred at a Washington Street store and Connolly used the app to alert nearby businesses and send photos of the suspects.
Before the app, Connolly said, many business owners did not discuss crime incidents with one another, sometimes didn’t contact police, or mismanaged evidence after a robbery or burglary. There was also often a disconnect between the police and some business owners, he said, partly because of language and cultural barriers.
The app will not replace detective work, Connolly said, but will create more awareness and a fluid pipeline for exchanging information about crime.
“This seems to close the gap . . . with sharing information,” he said.
Connolly said he hopes that the information shared through the app will one day help officers make an arrest. In addition to Bowdoin-Geneva, businesses in Fields Corner and Four Corners are also using the app. Connollyrecentlywent door-to-door to businesses in Fields Corner where owners listened intently as he explained how it works and encouraged them to sign up.
“It will make your employees safer,” Connolly told Peter Om, the co-owner of Coco Leaf, a new cafe.
It’s unclear whether the app will become a departmentwide crime-prevention tool. Boston police spokesman Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy said it is being tested in Dorchester and that “we will take a look after several months to see if it potentially could be used in other districts across the city.”