By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — Gang activity and violent crime are on the rise in the city, according to the patrolmen’s union.
The patrolmen said several violent disturbances in the last few weeks have resulted in many arrests and left several officers injured.
They include an incident last weekend described by police as a wild scene in which a large group of people that included one man with a bat chasing someone through a neighborhood just north of downtown. Five adults and three teenage boys were arrested in that incident, to which eight officers responded.
The patrolmen’s union said the Police Department continues to lack enough manpower and resources to adequately respond to the increase in gang activity and violent crime. Last weekend’s incident closely followed recent orders by senior police officials to reduce the number of officers on the overnight patrol shift and in the department’s street crimes unit, the union said.
“Our concern is that until very recently the city has denied knowledge of increasing gang activity in Haverhill,” the union said in a written statement. “It’s clear now that it can no longer be denied that gang activity is present and it has brought violence and drugs to our community.”
Mayor James Fiorentini disputed that crime is on the rise. On the contrary, the mayor said new statistics compiled by police show that crime is actually down about 2 percent in the last year.
Nonetheless, Fiorentini said the Police Department will pump up a number of anti-gang programs thanks to a $98,000 state grant announced last week by state Rep. Brian Dempsey, D-Haverhill. The Shannon Community Safety Initiative grants are awarded to communities with high levels of youth violence and gang problems, Dempsey said.
The mayor said grant money will pay for special patrols and “gang resistance” programs aimed at teenagers. The programs are run by police and the School Department.
Fiorentini said $27,000 will be used for extra police patrols in areas of the city where crime is rising and to pay for police officers to accompany court officers when they go into the community to check on people on probation with a history of violence. The checks are designed to make sure those people are following the terms of their supervised release, such as living and working where they are supposed to be and staying sober, the mayor said.
The rest of the money will be spent on a variety of education and training programs, the mayor said. They include a “gang resistance” program offered by police to children ages 10 to 12 at the Boys & Girls Club and the schools’ Violence Intervention Program, which counsels students on how to resist the allure of gangs. The grant also pays for community outreach for officers to meet with resident groups that have identified gang hangouts or drug-dealing in their neighborhoods, the mayor said.
“There’s no real way to measure gang activity, other that anecdotally,” Fiorentini said. “Gang members move in and out of the city all the time. We feel these programs and the grant money are valuable and they work. But it’s tough to measure.”
Overall, the mayor said, crime is down about 2 percent in Haverhill in the last year. That’s according to a year-long October 2011 to October 2012 analysis of reported crimes. Fiorentini said the new crime report will be released in a month or two.
Police Chief Alan DeNaro was with the mayor during a phone interview with a reporter on the Shannon grant and gang activity in the city, but DeNaro did not take questions. The chief also did not respond to an email seeking his comment for this story.
The patrolmen’s union said the Police Department continues to be woefully understaffed, but that its ranks are finally growing after many years of attrition. The city recently hired three new officers, bringing the total of patrolmen and detectives to 65 — still one of the lowest officer-to-resident ratios in the region, the union said.
“We can only hope the mayor continues to hire new officers to fill vacancies in the department, and that these grants are utilized properly to help us keep the community safe,” the union’s statement read. “It is clear that Rep. Dempsey and his colleagues recognize the ongoing concerns with the violence and crime in our community.”
Officer Anthony Ciampa, president of the patrolmen’s union, told City Council last May that gang activity was on the rise in Haverhill. Ciampa said the public doesn’t hear a lot about it, however, because police don’t have the manpower to “crack down” on gangs due to low staffing levels.
In response at that time, DeNaro said while there might be gang members living in Haverhill, police can’t do much about it until and unless they are caught committing a crime.
Ciampa has also voiced skepticism about the department’s annual crime report, claiming the information is gathered in such as way as to make the crime rate appear lower than it actually is. DeNaro has said the crime statistics are accurate and that they are compiled based on federal guidelines.
The Shannon grants are funded annually by the state legislature and administered by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety. The money is primarily used for gang task force personnel costs, crime analysis and social intervention, Dempsey said.