By Mark E. Vogler
---- — 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of many criticisms in a scathing 137-page consultant’s report on an “out of control” agency hampered by poor morale, outdated policies and 1950s-style crime-fighting techniques.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.
“That was a monumental effort that not only benefited the citizens of Lawrence, but also the entire Commonwealth,” Romero said.
Being a ‘wonderful neighbor’
While his commitment to eliminating auto insurance fraud in the city gained national attention, the chief’s efforts to connect with the city’s neighborhoods may have been his greatest and most important endeavor, according to some officials and residents interviewed last week.
“I was very much impressed at how dedicated he was to the city of Lawrence,” former Mayor Michael J. Sullivan said. Sullivan also worked closely with the chief on neighborhood issues during his two years as a city councilor before getting elected mayor.
“Not only as the police chief, but also as a resident of the city, his greatest asset was his ability to be a wonderful neighbor and citizen of the city that he loves and that he is in charge of, keeping the people safe,” Sullivan said.
Romero demonstrated early on that he wanted to be a Lawrencian. He bought a home in the city’s Mount Vernon section and began attending neighborhood group meetings, making himself available to residents who wanted to ask him questions about crime that affected them. He usually came prepared with fresh analysis of crime trends in the particular neighborhood.
Many citizens and city officials viewed this as a refreshing change in a department that had a major public image problem. Before Romero’s arrival, neighborhood group leaders usually got the runaround when they called the police station.
Previous chiefs weren’t very accessible or approachable, according to neighborhood group activist Harold Magoon.
“He did it right out of the gate, which was a bonus to neighborhood groups,” said Magoon, the long-time leader of Lawrence/Methuen Community Coalition. LMCC, a non-profit organization under the umbrella of the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, serves as a facilitator to neighborhood groups.
“He would attend meetings whether there were five people or 50 people, and always treated each group with a high level of respect and engagement. His commitment was genuine and people knew it, that is why so many people loved his work style,” Magoon said.
City Councilor Marc Laplante said he’s personally witnessed Romero’s close working relationship with neighborhood groups since the chief’s arrival during his two stints on the council, first as District D councilor, representing the residents of the Tower Hill area and more recently as a representative of District F in the South Lawrence East area.
“He religiously went to every neighborhood association meeting and would always be accessible to any neighbor who had a question,” said Laplante, who is completing his eighth year as a councilor.
“You would think after 15 years he would burn out. But he kept going. People in the neighborhood valued his time. I am not aware of any other police chief who would take that kind of time. Whenever I made a phone call to him, he always responded — if not immediately, fairly quickly,” he said.
Sullivan said Romero has gone out of his way to make Lawrence his home, becoming a great ambassador for the city. He did whatever he could to promote a better community image.
“I can go on and on about his accomplishments, but I think looking back, the city of Lawrence is a safer place since John has been in charge of the force and the city will miss his presence and his wonderful personality,” Sullivan said.
Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley said he’s come to know Romero as a friend and key ally of the Lawrence Public Schools during his 18 months of overseeing the turnaround of the city’s troubled education system.
“Chief Romero was always a strong supporter of the schools,” Riley said last week. “From helping to refine our school safety plans to providing us with additional police coverage for school events or after snowstorms, we knew we could always count on him.”
“On a personal note, I am grateful that the chief was someone who reached out to me upon my arrival to Lawrence to welcome me and to let me know his door was always open and his phone was always on. Obviously, this is a huge loss for our community,” he said.
Mayor William Lantigua, who chairs the School Committee, agreed that Romero “will truly be missed.”
“I have to find a leader with some really big shoes to fill our chief’s spot,” the mayor said a press release announcing the chief’s retirement.
Lantigua, who seeks a second four-year term as mayor this fall, was unavailable for comment and didn’t return telephone calls to this reporter.
Romero’s replacement indefinite
It’s not clear how Lantigua plans to replace Romero. The mayor said in his press release last Friday that he would announce a succession plan in the coming days.
The mayor and the police chief haven’t enjoyed a close relationship since Lantigua took over the mayor’s office. The relations were strained early in his term when he demoted Deputy Police Chief Michael Driscoll and later replaced him by promoting then sergeant Melix Bonilla.
Driscoll, who was named deputy in 2007 by Mayor Michael Sullivan on Romero’s recommendation, was demoted to captain.
During a City Council meeting during August of 2010, the mayor pledged his confidence in Bonilla as a future leader of the Lawrence Police Department.
“When, and if, Mr. Romero leaves, I will name (Bonilla) interim police chief,” the mayor vowed at the meeting.
But that was before Bonilla’s indictment by an Essex County Grand Jury last fall as part of an ongoing investigation into Lantigua and his administration. Bonilla, Lantigua’s campaign manager, is accused of swapping 13-city owned vehicles for four Chevrolets with a Lantigua friend. The state inspector general said the city lost $30,000 in the deal.
Although he is no longer working, Bonilla remains on the city payroll, earning $140,000-a-year.
Two city councilors who played a key role in Romero’s hiring said they expect that the mayor will appoint an interim chief to replace Romero, allowing the decision on a permanent appointment to be made by whoever wins the mayoral race this fall.
“The City Charter prohibits a permanent appointment at this time because it’s so close to the election. So, it would have to be interim,” Laplante said. “I just hope the mayor is aware of the ‘Lame Duck’ provision and doesn’t appoint somebody permanent.”
Councilor Dan Rivera, who served on the search committee that found Romero and brought him to the city, said he’s concerned about the mayor following proper procedures and finding a good interim replacement for Romero.
“The current mayor has shown himself incapable of hiring the right person for the right job,” said Rivera, a vocal political adversary of the mayor and one of several mayoral candidates seeking to oust Lantigua from City Hall.
“My hope is he’s going to appoint somebody short term, and that the chief can work with (that person) on his way out. This is too important a position for this mayor to put somebody in permanently. At the end of the day, the next chief is going to impact this community for the next 10 years. That’s why the next mayor is so important. The next mayor is going to hire the next chief police,” he said.
A ‘rocky’ relationship
Laplante and Rivera question the mayor’s sincerity in his praise of Romero, noting the strained relations between Lantigua and the Police Department since the city encountered fiscal problems in 2010.
The mayor’s decisions, including the replacement of Driscoll as deputy chief, the demotion of 12 superior officers, the layoffs of 25 police officers and the administration’s overall handling of the fiscal crisis as it relates to the Police Department, contributed to the rift.
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.
Communications got even worse in 2011, when the superior officers mailed a letter to local media blaming the mayor for “crushing the morale of a once proud Police Department.” Later that year, there were rumors that some city councilors and Lantigua were plotting to get rid of the popular police chief.
In a December 2011 newsletter of the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Association, Frank Incropera called on city residents to beware of a plan instigated by the mayor to get rid of Romero.
He described the chief as one of “very few bright lights” among those in power.
Romero acknowledged that relations between him and the mayor weren’t very good several years ago.
“In the beginning, it was a bit rocky,” Romero said. “However, we have worked through that, and in the last couple of years we have worked together to increase the number of police officers, restore the demoted supervisors to their previous rank and restored specialized units, which has resulted in a decrease in crime.”
The conditions were good enough more than a year ago that Lantigua offered him a contract extension, Romero noted.
“I could have done another year and a half and we had some discussion about that,” the chief said. “But, I have decided that the time was right for me to retire. I had a long, good career. I leave the department in good shape. You want to go out on a high note. The city is in good shape and the future is bright. We’re not back to where we were, but we’re headed in the right direction.”
Romero said he’s ready to assist the mayor and the Police Department in the transition to an interim police chief and believes there are several well-qualified candidates currently in the department who are capable of running it on an interim or even permanent basis.
Laplante said Romero’s performance will be difficult to top by whoever is appointed as the next police chief — not just in fighting crime, but in political survival.
“He was also able to navigate the shark-infested political waters in Lawrence to the betterment of the city,” he said.
All about family
Romero denied that turmoil in the mayor’s office caused by various investigations into corruption, or strained relations with the mayor, contributed to his decision to retire.
“It’s all about family,” he said of his decision to move to Southern California. “I want to be close to my daughters, who I don’t get to see that often.”
One daughter, Joanne Vega, 29, has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from California State at Long Beach and has applied for a job with a municipal police department in California. His other daughter, Jill Romero, 32, a graduate of UMass Amherst, is teaching while she works on getting the credentials to become a school administrator.
“My mom is 87 now and she lives in Puerto Rico. I want to spend some time with her as well,” the chief said.
The weather was also a factor.
“I am not one for winters, and I’m not going to miss them,” he said.
After 15 years of living in Lawrence though, Romero said he still considers the city a place close to his heart.
“I came here a complete stranger 15 years ago, and the people made me feel like this is my home, and it will always be my home,” Romero said. “I’ll be back periodically in Lawrence because I have thousands of friends. I will definitely be back. Here, I not only get to know the officers on a first name basis, but I know their spouses, I know their kids. And I know their parents. To me, it’s a family.”
“I just want to thank the people of Lawrence and the Lawrence Police Department for allowing me to be their chief. I want to thank them for allowing me that honor and privilege.”