By Mark E. Vogler
LAWRENCE — Major crime in the city has been creeping up to dangerous levels since the Lawrence Police Department lost more than a quarter of its force to budget cuts in July of last year.
Auto theft has nearly doubled. Aggravated assaults have increased by more than half.
There have been 100 more burglaries of homes and businesses. Murders and robberies are both on the rise by more than 27 percent.
Overall, there has been a 44 percent jump in so-called Part One Felony Crimes that are reported annually to the FBI in the 13 months since the Police Department lost 41 positions, compared to a similar period before the layoffs.
In all, 943 of the most significant crimes — murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft and arson — were added to the work load of a department thinned by staff reductions and demotions.
"There's no question that crime has taken a big spike up," Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said of the recent statistics compiled by his office and released to The Eagle-Tribune after a public records request.
"That's a lot. That's significant. But this is what we predicted was going to happen back in June of 2010. It's tied into the fact we're into a reactive mode instead of being pro-active. It's tied to the fact that we had to collapse all our specialized units into the patrol division, with our number one priority — having sufficient units to answer calls," Romero said in an interview last week.
"I understand we had no money and that prompted these layoffs. Our police force dropped from 151 to 110 in July of 2010, and that was after losing 10 positions a year earlier. The city is short on finances. I understand what brought us to this point. However, that doesn't change what happened. We know the numbers of police officers the city has matters," he said.
City Councilor Marc Laplante said the statistics don't help the city's image but called the information critical to motivating Mayor William Lantigua and the City Council to make public safety their top priority.
"People want to know about how safe the city is and what the impact of the previous year's cuts had on crime. And if there's an increase, they want to know what we are we trying to do about it," said Laplante, who represents residents of the District F South Lawrence East area.
"We're looking at nearly a 50 percent increase in crime and that has an effect on so many different fronts. It affects economic development in the city. It affects revenue for businesses. It affects property values. It affects our tax base. And most importantly, it increases the number of people who are victims of crime," Laplante said.
Laplante accused the mayor of "playing games" with crime statistics by downplaying them and "not being forthcoming" in providing information to the City Council. At Laplante's urging, the council voted unanimously last week to write a letter to the mayor seeking crime statistics for the last two years.
The information Laplante has been seeking in recent weeks is similar to the data obtained by The Eagle-Tribune. The Police Department made the crime data available to the newspaper after it was provided to the mayor's office and authorization was given to release it.
No reaction from mayor
Mayor Lantigua had a chance to review the crime data before it was released to The Eagle-Tribune. But his office has issued no public comment on the statistics so far.
The mayor could not be reached for comment. His cell phone was not accepting messages.
The mayor is considering various options to replace officers who were laid off a year ago.
"Since the layoffs first occurred, I have vowed that when funding is available I will take the necessary steps to increase our force and especially our Patrol Division," the mayor said in a press release last week.
Late last month, he announced his plans to reinstate five laid-off patrol officers. He said he took that action in response to "the recent nightly disturbances and a careful review of future financial abilities, future grants and recent retirements," Lantigua said.
A recent surge in murder — five over the last five weeks, including the slaying of Milka Rivera and her son and daughter over the Labor Day weekend — has drawn more attention to the city's violent crime problem. Laplante and other city officials hope this kind of unwanted notoriety will help bring more public safety funding into the city.
The Police Department recently applied for a $750,000 grant to pay for nine police officers. Officials expect to hear by mid-fall if they will receive the money. The city may also be eligible for some of the $2 million in state aid to help police departments, according to the state-appointed fiscal overseer of Lawrence, Robert Nunes.
Chief Romero sees hope
"There's light at the end of the tunnel," Chief Romero said of the outlook for his department. "I'm optimistic that the grants the department has applied for will get us somewhere between 12 and 18 people back. ,,,
"We've gone through a tough year, but I'm optimistic. The men and women of this department have done it before. So I have no doubts we can do it again. We just need the resources. We know how to reduce crime. We did it. We went from one of the highest per capita crime rates in the state to one of the lowest of any city and maintained that for six and a half years," he said.
When Romero arrived here in January 1999 from the New York City Police Department, crime was rampant.
The city averaged better than 4,000 Part 1 crimes a year, and the number had held steady for years, according to Romero.
While crime has begun creeping back up, Romero said the 2,840 Part 1 crimes recorded for the fiscal year that ended June 30 is still far below the numbers then.
"The bottom line is we have a proven track record, we have been successful at reducing crime and we know we can do it again," Romero said.
"Hopefully, when we get the additional officers back, we'll be able to bring the units back that deal with the underlying issues that created the crime — like the auto theft unit, the drug unit, the gang unit, the burglary apprehension unit, domestic violence unit. I also want to bring back community policing," he said.
"If I get the units up and running again, it's not going to be where we were when we had 161 members. But it's a start. Right now, we have 110 officers, with five more starting within the next two weeks. Those are the ones the mayor recalled," he said.
With additional grants, the department could boost its manpower to more than 130, Romero said.