LAWRENCE — With the end of 2012 coming to a close, Mayor William Lantigua and Police Chief John Romero are declaring the city appears to be winning the battle against crime.
“We’re seeing a safer city. We’ve turned the corner,” Romero said as he joined the mayor in his third-floor office at City Hall to announce a 19 percent reduction in crime overall during the first nine months of the year.
This included what the mayor called “a momentous” 83 percent drop in homicides, with one murder in the city through the end of September compared to six murders a year ago. There was a second murder Nov. 4 when a Lowell teenager was gunned down outside a house party.
The city also experienced a major drop in auto theft (40 percent), robbery (26 percent) and burglary (14 percent), according to statistics compiled by John Reynolds, director of the Police Department’s crime data analysis unit.
Romero and Lantigua both cited the reactivation of the department’s Special Operations Division as the key reason for the positive crime trends. During the first eight months since being re-established on April 10, the 13-officer-unit headed Capt. Roy Vasque has made 807 arrests — including 690 for drug offenses.
“The department recognizes that drugs fuel most of the crimes in the city — the car break-ins, the burglaries, the violent crimes, the homicides — it’s all based on drugs,” Romero said Wednesday.
“If you impact on the drug problem, you’re going to impact on crime across the board. Those numbers reflect it,” he said.
The Special Operations Unit seized $145,000 in U.S. currency, 17 firearms, 1,465 grams of heroin and more than 1,000 grams of cocaine and crack cocaine as a result of its daily focus on the city’s illegal drug trade.
“In my opinion, one of the reasons why crime is down in general is because of the heavy hit on the drug dealing business,” the mayor said.
“They’re all impressive,” Lantigua said of the latest crime statistics released by police.
“The one number I find very impressive is the 17 firearms that were taken off the streets ... 17 firearms that are not going to be used in the commission of a crime. That’s what takes lives away. Getting those guns out of the street is the most significant (crime statistic),” the mayor said.
Overall, Lawrence Police confiscated 65 firearms through November and made more than 2,000 arrests.
Local police investigation and crime-fighting efforts have been hampered over the past two years by the fiscal problems Lantigua faced when he took office as mayor. The mayor was forced to layoff 24 officers and demote 11 superior officers in mid-2010 in order to balance the budget.
These drastic personnel moves reduced the police force to 110 officers and led to the shutdown of the Special Operations Division which oversaw several specialized crime-fighting units dealing with traffic, insurance fraud, auto theft, drugs and community policing.
“The year 2011 was a very tough year for us,” Romero recalled.
“We lost quite a bit in the way of resources and we stopped being proactive. We had to react to crime. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. The economy impacted on the city and we lost those officers,” the chief said.
“We essentially became a police department that responded to calls instead of being pro-active,” he said.
But that changed in April after the mayor announced the recall of officers and the restoration of ranks to 11 superior officers. These reinstatements boosted the police force to 120 while enabling the chief to bring back the Special Operations Division.
The revived division was broken down to three parts — the Street Narcotics Unit, Auto Theft/Insurance Fraud and Community Policing.
“In years past with a fully staffed division, officers were assigned to specific units and stayed within those units to concentrate on specific crimes,” Capt. Vasque noted in a memo detailing the division’s recent arrest and seizure statistics.
“The strategy has now changed with a one third reduction in the number of officers assigned to the division. The division has now adapted to a smaller, more flexible group of officers with each officers’ assignments and responsibilities changing daily based on current crime trends,” he said.
With limited manpower, the division has focused primarily on the drug trade. But its investigations have led to 49 arrests in the area of auto theft/insurance fraud and 68 more for community policing and quality of life crimes
“Since April, we have been able to now start being proactive dealing with crime,” Romero said.
“I’m very confident that we’re going to continue reducing crime,” the chief said. He said he expects the current statistics to hold during the final quarter of the year.
Romero credited the mayor’s willingness to work with the Police Department to restore supervisors and add more police to the force, in addition to reaching contract agreements with the superior officer and patrol unions
“Patrol is still the backbone of any police force and the detectives who investigates serious crimes,” Romero said.
“But you need more to address the underlying causes of crime. It wouldn’t have been possible without the mayor’s efforts. We wouldn’t have been able to bring back the Special Operations Division unit, which allows us to be proactive. Our crime analysis unit plays a key role as well in identifying potential hot spots and thereby preventing crime,” the chief said.
The Police Department’s current force is still way below the 161 officers that were once under Romero’s command. The chief said he doesn’t know when his department could be back at full strength.
But the chief said he’s optimistic that the positive crime-fighting trends will continue.
“I am committed to offer the resources needed, keeping in mind the limitations that we have financially to the Police Department and the other departments,” the mayor said.
“Our specialized units have focused in all areas to improve the quality of life of our residents and rid the city streets of lawless behavior,” Lantigua said.
Crime Down in Lawrence Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 CRIME 2011 2012 Change Murder 6 1 -83 percent *Rape 9 18 100 percent Robbery 184 136 -48 percent Aggravated Assault 391 389 -1 percent Burglary 511 440 -14 percent Larceny over $250 231 259 12 percent Auto Theft 838 504 -40 percent Total 2170 1747 -19 percent Compiled by the Lawrence Police Department crime data analysis unit. *Police say the rape statistics reflect an expansion of the definition of rape over the past year which contributed to the increase.