MANCHESTER — A North End bakery, two hair salons and a disabled couple in motorized wheelchairs are among the victims of the recent spike in increasingly violent robberies that police largely blame on drug addicts hunting quick cash to feed their habits — mostly heroin.
"It's terrible. Someone walks in and puts a gun in your back," hair stylist Debbie Verkos said of the Nov. 25 armed holdup inside Hair Decor.
"That has really shaken us. We've been here almost 50 years and nothing like this has ever happened," said Verkos, who is co-owner of the 414 Chestnut St. salon where a "nice looking" man came in off the street and held up her co-owner and a customer sitting under the hair dryer.
"It's drugs. They just want cash," hair stylist Nancy Poulios said of a separate robbery that happened Monday at Hairtistic Salon where she works. A masked man burst into the 217 Blodget St. shop with an 8-inch kitchen knife in his hand. Upset there was only $15 in the register, he demanded purses, Poulios said.
"I told him we don't have purses. He was in and out quick. He was just seeing what he could get," she added. She said it was the first time in her 40 years as a hair stylist that she has been robbed at work.
These are among the 291 robberies — armed and unarmed — reported as of Dec. 20 this year, police said. That is 86 more — or a 42 percent increase — over the 205 reported in all of 2012. A robbery is a theft in which force or the threat of force is used.
Robberies have steadily increased not only in the last three months, but over the prior five years, police crime statistics show. There were 170 in 2008.
"There is no question there has been an increase. The frequency has increased and we are certainly becoming concerned about the level of violence shown in these crimes," Lt. Maureen Tessier said Friday, referring to the rise in armed robberies in which firearms, knives or other weapons are used.
The most dramatic increase has occurred since October when 27 robberies were reported compared to 12 in October, 2012. In November, there were 36 compared to 20 in November, 2012. There have been 24 hold ups as of Dec. 20 this year. There were a total 19 last December.
"The common denominator is drug dependency, especially heroin," Tessier said. "There is no question that is the number one motivator behind these crimes."
Heroin has emerged as the low-cost alternative for people who developed a dependency on Oxycontin, Percocet or other pain killers, but no longer can get prescriptions for them, Tessier said.
Robberies are most often a crime of opportunity in which thieves want to get money quickly without hurting anyone, Tessier said.
Police use a variety of tactics to reduce robberies, ranging from crime prevention programs to educate the public, to analyses of crime data that reveal patterns of where and when robberies occurred, which can also help predict where future ones will happen.
Manchester police have made arrests in about 50 percent of the cases, which she said is higher than the national average of 28.1 percent reported by the FBI.
"We're making significant arrests with these crimes, but the rate of them occurring is still pretty high, which tells us there are a large number of people out there committing (them)," she said.
Police have worked with variety and convenience stores – a favorite target of robbers — to better protect themselves. When a waiting list formed for the women's safety clinic police held last month, they scheduled another one for Jan. 7. That one also is full.
A few simple precautions can go a long way to keep people from becoming targets of robbers, Tessier said.
Stay focused and alert when in public, that includes putting away the cell phone, she said. Thieves, she said, prey on those who look like easy targets.
"If you have someone talking on their phone, looking down, not paying attention, that person presents themselves as someone who is vulnerable," she said.
Stay in well-lit, well-populated places, be aware of what's going on around you, have your keys ready when you walk to your car and trust your instincts, she said.