By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE – A renewed strategy to have an investigative unit focus on the city’s illegal drug trade has paid off with dramatic results for the Lawrence Police Department, according to Chief John Romero.
”We’re talking about the confiscation of drugs with three quarters of a million dollars in street value,” Romero said, calculating the net worth of the drug seizures by the Special Operations Division a year after its reactivation.
”More than 1200 arrests, $188,000 in currency seized and 23 guns taken off the streets. That’s huge and that’s the work of 14 people,” the chief said.
”We’ve got a long ways to go, but we’re turning the corner. We’re starting to deal with the underlying issues that cause crime, like we used to,” he said.
The 14-officer unit headed by Capt. Roy Vasque is broken down to three parts — the Street Narcotics Unit, Auto Theft/Insurance Fraud and Community Policing. The officers assigned to those groups remain flexible, with their responsibilities changing almost daily based on the most recent crime trends.
”This strategy has allowed the division to assign as many officers as possible to work on a specific problem, whether it’s drugs, auto theft or a community policing issue,” Vasque said.
“With limited manpower the division has spent the majority of it’s time focusing on the drug trade. ... By attacking the drug problem on a daily basis the division felt it could have a positive impact on reducing overall crime,” he said.
Special Operations had been at the core of Romero’s success as police chief since taking over the police force 14 years ago. The division once had 40 officers involved, enough to work exclusively in their units while concentrating on specific crimes.
But all that changed in mid-2010, when Mayor William Lantigua was forced to lay off 24 officers and demote 11 superior officers to balance the city’s budget in the midst of serious fiscal problems which led to a state-appointed receiver to oversee the city’s finances.
“When the cuts came, Special Operations was the first thing to go, as we turned from a pro-active police department into a reactive police department,” Romero said.
“We had to have patrol officers to respond to the calls and small detective division. But, we weren’t able to continue doing the things that made us successful,” he said.
Romero credited Mayor Lantigua with helping to revive Special Operations last April. The mayor announced the recall of officers and the restoration of ranks to 11 superior officers. These reinstatements increased the police force to 120 members, allowing Romero to bring back the specialized units on a smaller scale.
“Where we are today is still a far cry from where we were before July 2010 when we went from 146 positions in the department down to 110,” Romero said.
”I have to commend the mayor for restoring the people who had been demoted, working to get some officers back to work and working with us to get some grants so we were able to get some people back,” Romero said.
”Special Operations may be just one third of its original size, but the numbers speaks for themselves. We’re listening to what people are saying and we’re dealing with the issues that impact peoples’ lives. Our hope is, as we get more people back, we can increase the number of people in special operations. Let’s face it: the more cops you have, the more you can do,” the chief said.
While lauding the efforts of the Special Operations Division, Romero said it would be unfair to overlook the work of his entire department.
”The success we’ve had in turning things around is because of everybody,” the chief said.
”It’s been a team effort – not just Special Operations. From 2011 to 2012, crime was reduced by 17 percent. We took 70 guns off the street last year. And there’s been a 52 percent increase in the number of arrests,” he said.
THE RESULTS SINCE DIVISION'S REVIVAL :Total Arrests: 1208 Drug Arrests: 1032 Auto Theft/Insurance Fraud Arrests: 60 Community Policing/Quality of Life Arrests: 116 U.S Currency Seized: $188,000 Firearms Seized: 23 Search Warrants Executed: 40 Search Warrants Motor Vehicles: 26 Narcotics Seized: Class A Heroin: 1,818.0 grams Class A Heroin Twist Bags: 852 Class B Cocaine: 1,314.0 grams Class B Cocaine Twist Bags: 260 Class B Crack Cocaine: 76.7 grams Class B Cocaine Twist Bags: 202 Class B and E Pills: 2,000 pills Class D Marijuana: 97 grams