EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 17, 2013

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

The Eagle-Tribune

---- — 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.

In 1997, Romero became commander of the NYPD’s 34th Precinct in upper Manhattan, leading 300 officers serving a population of 100,00. That’s where he learned to lead and to work with the community to fight crime.

When he came to Lawrence, Romero brought with him the principles of community policing and computerized crime analysis and, in his first year on the job in Lawrence, produced results. Crime went down, arrests went up.

He also addressed the problems plaguing the department. He demanded officers treat the public and each other with respect and forced officers lingering on the disabled rolls to return to work or retire. Morale, pride and professionalism began to rise.

The jewel in the crown of Romero’s accomplishments was his campaign against auto insurance fraud, begun 10 years ago.

It had become a cottage industry in Lawrence, with law offices and chiropractic and physical therapy clinics springing up to pursue insurance settlements for phantom injuries suffered in staged or completely fictitious accidents.

Everyone knew what the game was, including the insurers. But they thought it was cheaper to pay off the relatively small settlements and pass on the costs to other drivers. Nothing could be done about it, they thought.

Romero thought otherwise, and when a Lawrence grandmother was killed in a staged accident, he created an insurance fraud task force to attack the problem, just as he had attacked the graffiti epidemic in New York. Investigators tracked down the low-level participants, then worked their up to the major players, including doctors and lawyers.

The effort led to almost 500 arrests.

Almost overnight, the storefront crash clinics closed up shop and accident claims plummeted. Lawrence drivers have saved $68 million in insurance premiums since the task force began its work.

For that alone, Romero would have earned his pay and the accolades that have come his way since his retirement.

It will be up to whoever wins this fall’s mayoral election to chose Romero’s successor, though Mayor William Lantigua will likely pick an interim chief to serve when Romero leaves in Sept. 3.

The search for a new police chief should be a major issue in the campaign for mayor and City Council, and all those who truly care about the city’s future will be following the issue closely.

Romero leaves behind a record he can be proud of and a core of thoroughly professional officers. Lawrence cannot afford to backslide into the bad old days now.