LAWRENCE — Back in early 1999, the Lawrence Police Department had a reputation for displaying bad attitudes toward the public — so bad that it was noted as one of many criticisms in a scathing 137-page consultant’s report on an “out of control” agency hampered by poor morale, outdated policies and 1950s-style crime-fighting techniques.
That report and being an outsider from New York City toughened the challenging task of turning around a troubled department for John J. Romero, the then 48-year-old commander of the New York City Police Department’s 34th Precinct in the Washington Heights neighborhood.
“There was quite a disconnect between the community and the department,” Romero, 63, said in an interview just hours after he announced he is retiring Sept. 3 after nearly 15 years as chief.
“People in Lawrence didn’t feel close to their police department,” he added, reflecting on the major challenges he faced on the day he became the city’s first Hispanic police chief.
Romero and most of his admirers consider his fight against auto insurance fraud as the single greatest accomplishment during his time as chief.
The task force he assembled in the fall of 2003 after the death of a 65-year-old great-grandmother in a crash she helped plan to scam insurance companies, triggered a historic crackdown. Close to 500 people have been charged since its creation while drivers who buy auto insurance in the city have saved more than $68 million in premiums since that fatal crash.
Lawrence police detectives working with investigators of the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts (IFB), a handful of special investigative units for companies doing business in Lawrence, Essex County District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett’s office and the state Attorney General’s office was so successful it prompted the IFB to create nine other task forces in 12 fraud-prone communities. Collectively, the 10 task forces have saved drivers in those communities $875 million while leading to criminal charges filed against more than 1,900 individuals.