Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

Needham remains one of the safest towns in Massachusetts — and by some measures, in America. But even the safest towns have crime, and some types, such as vehicle-related thefts, forgery and counterfeiting scams like mailbox fishing have been on the rise.

Each year, the Needham Police Department presents its statistics in a year-end report to the Select Board. Chief John Schlittler went deeper into the numbers with the Observer, highlighting some of the trends the department is seeing.

Vehicle-related problems on the rise

In 2022 Needham saw a jump in the number of thefts of motor vehicle parts, part of a larger trend of car-related incidents in recent years. 

“There’s a lot of organized car thefts, or break-ins to cars,” Schlittler said. “We are seeing a lot of that.” 

What seems to have changed is the organized nature of the car break-ins and thefts (Needham had seven outright car thefts in 2022). 

“In the past, a lot of our car breaks were due to people dependent on opiates and drugs, looking for cash to get their next fix,” said Schlittler. “So now we’re going into an organized type of crime pattern where it’s for profit.” 

Needham has had issues with the so-called Felony Lane Gang, a Ft. Lauderdale, Florida-based group named for its frequent use of the lane at drive-thru banks that is farthest from the surveillance cameras. 

“They drive up and down the East Coast, they’ll break into cars (if they can see) pocketbooks, they see this, they’ll steal the credit cards, money, cash, sometimes they’ll take cars or whatever it be. And that’s a pretty big problem.”

The thefts occur in parking lots or outside gyms during the day, and at residents’ homes at night, Schlittler said. And in many situations, they are avoidable — instances where residents left their cars unlocked or left the keys in the car. 

“A lot of times they’re just opening the door, and the key fob is there,” Schlittler said. “It comes back to the whole thing of, lock your cars, right? But also don’t leave in plain view your purse on the seat, or laptop bag in the back.”

Who they are and where they’re from

There were 60 arrests made in 2022, in line with 2021’s total of 61, but a steep fall from the 2019 total of 131. Of the 60 arrests, 71.7% of those individuals arrested were white, 16.7% were Black, 6.7% were Hispanic, and 5% were Asian. 

Of the 60 arrests made in 2022, 88% were male, and 70% were non-Needham residents, with Providence, Newton, Boston, Worcester and New York City in a five-way tie for the most non-Needham arrests at three apiece. 

That dramatic split between residents and non-residents also extended to traffic stops, where the vast majority — 85%— are non-Needham drivers. Similarly, 75.4% of motor vehicle stops were of white drivers, while Black motorists made up 6.7% of the total, Hispanic drivers 8.4%, and Asian drivers 6.5%, respectively.  

“The motor vehicle stops by race, but also by resident status, is pretty startling,” Needham Select Board member Heidi Frail commented at the meeting after reviewing the stats. “That’s a lot of people from out of town here.” 

The reality, Schlittler said, is that Needham has a lot of drivers passing through its major roads, and that’s where police wait to nab speeders. 

“Most of it is speed or reckless driving,” he said. “That has a tendency to be in those major arteries or thoroughfares … your Webster Streets, Highland Aves., West Street’s a problem. These are big commuter roads, you’re more likely to get a lot more people who are traveling through town.” 

When it comes to Needham residents being stopped so much less often, Schlittler also offered a theory. 

“I’d like to say that it’s that the people of Needham drive very well and are cautious,” Schlittler said with a grin. Then added more seriously, “There is some truth to that, especially with people that are around schools, they know where the schools are, they know where the kids are, they have a tendency to be more compliant with the laws and the regulations.”

The priorities going forward

Needham was ranked ninth-safest small city or town in the nation by financial advice site MoneyGeek in February of 2023, using FBI crime statistics from 2021. There were no instances of homicides, prostitution, or non-forcible sex offenses in Needham in 2022. There was one death resulting from a drug overdose, down from three in 2021. 

Low crime doesn’t mean no crime or a shortage of unpleasant incidents. In the past few weeks, there have been reports of bunny rabbits shot with what appear to be crossbow bolts in town. Schlittler said that police are aware of the issue and are investigating along with the Massachusetts Environmental Police. 

Needham also has a problem with mailbox fishing, where thieves tie a string to a sticky object and drop it into a mailbox, then use it to pull out mail – hoping to land credit card statements, checks, or other entrees into identity theft. The 67 counterfeiting/forgery offenses, which includes mailbox fishing and other scams, is more than twice what it was in 2019.

And the department continues to work on its own policies and training following a 2020 incident where Needham police handcuffed and detained a Boston man, Marvin Henry, who is Black, for a half-hour after he was erroneously identified as a suspect in a shoplifting incident at the Needham Heights CVS. Schlittler said that the department had been doing some of this type of training prior to reaching a settlement with Henry. 

“Now we’re making sure that we continue with that, and keeping up with current trends or issues,” he said. “We want people to feel that (we’re) inclusive. That we’re part of the whole community, not a certain community, but the whole community.” 

Needham resident Daniel Barbarisi is a senior editor at The Athletic and a non-fiction author.

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