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July 17, 2013

Editorial: After Romero, no going back to the bad old days

The bad news is that John Romero is retiring as police chief of Lawrence.

The good news is that Lawrence had him as chief for 15 years.

In that time, Romero and his department made remarkable progress in combating crime.

When he arrived here from New York City, crime was out of control. So was the Police Department itself, after decades of political infighting and bad leadership.

We well remember those bad old days, when the department was run on the spoils system by an elected alderman of public safety. Cops who backed the right candidate for alderman got the cushy jobs and pay raises. Cops who supported the wrong candidate went nowhere.

The system produced a department split into factions that were more interested in playing politics and settling scores than fighting crime or serving the public. Apathy and poor morale reigned.

A change in the city charter gave the mayor the power to appoint the chief, with City Council confirmation. It took a few tries, but Mayor Patricia Dowling found the ideal candidate in Romero. He started work on Jan. 18, 1999.

Romero had risen through the ranks in New York, starting as a patrolman with the Transit Police in 1971. He later joined its anti-graffiti unit, where he learned valuable lessons that he would apply to Lawrence: Quality-of-life crimes matter. And police are not powerless to combat them.

At the time, New York City’s subway cars were being targeted by graffiti vandals, whose spray-painted tags sent a message that the bad guys were in control and police couldn’t stop them.

The anti-graffiti unit used old-fashioned police legwork to track down and arrest the vandals. It also made sure no subway car left the station until it had been cleaned of graffiti, depriving the “artists” of the satisfaction of seeing the fruits of their labor.

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