LAWRENCE — City Councilor Marc Laplante has implored city officials to address Lawrence's soaring car theft problem before residents get walloped by high auto insurance rates again.
Since last July, when the Police Department lost 40 officers through layoffs, auto theft has jumped 114 percent, Laplante said.
He referred to Lawrence Police Department statistics showing 596 cars were stolen in the city from July 2010 — when the layoffs occurred — through January 31 of this year compared to 278 over the same seven-month period last year.
Fifteen car thefts were reported alone for Sunday and Monday in the city, according to city police logs.
Last year's layoffs forced the Police Department to dismantle a number of crime-fighting specialty units, including the city's auto insurance fraud task force and the auto theft unit. Officials have credited those units with a dramatic reduction in auto insurance premiums for Lawrence drivers in recent years.
"Lawrence remains 40 police officers down from last year's level, which is rapidly reverting us back to the day when Lawrence was considered the stolen car capital of Massachusetts," Laplante, the District F councilor for the South Lawrence East area, said last week.
"Should auto thefts continue at this pace, every car owner in Lawrence will once again face draconian increases in auto insurance premiums. With Lawrence residents having the lowest per capita income in the state, such an insurance premium increase would have a disproportionate effect on their lives," Laplante said.
The special fraud task force Romero assembled in the fall of 2003 with the help of the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Massachusetts, investigators of several insurance companies, the district attorney's office and the state attorney general determined a strong correlation between auto theft and auto fraud.
Romero credited the work of the auto insurance fraud task force with the 51 percent drop in stolen cars during 2004. The 597 thefts marked the first time in at least 25 years that stolen cars fell below 1,000 a year.
For eight straight years beginning in 1986, Lawrence had more than 2,000 stolen cars every year, with the 3,534 auto thefts reported in 1990 being the most. The city averaged 2,466 stolen cars a year over that period.
Romero created the auto insurance fraud task force in late 2003 after a 65-year-old great-grandmother died in a car crash that police said she helped plan to collect insurance.
During last week's City Council meeting, Laplante unveiled his stolen car analysis and shared his concerns on how he thought it would impact car insurance rates negatively for city residents. He urged Mayor William Lantigua, city councilors and various public sector unions to do what they could to help restore budget cuts in the Police Department.
"If we get any more money, we should be dedicating it to the police officers," Laplante told councilors.
"This really does affect peoples' pocketbooks ... We have a 17 percent unemployment rate in the city. The mayor and union need to get together," Laplante said.
He said it would take a combination of things — contract negotiations, locating savings and applying new revenue — to bring the police force back up to full strength.
Council Roger Twomey suggested the city should be looking for help from the insurance industry, which saved millions of dollars in reduced fraud and auto theft claims primarily because of the work of the task force.
During a recent meeting of the South Common Neighborhood Association, Twomey said he asked state Rep. David Torrisi to see if there was anything the insurance industry could do to provide financial support to revive the fraud task force "because of all the money the insurance industry has made."
Councilor Daniel Rivera said he believed city officials needed to be "asking unions to make some concessions."
"The reason why we were able to give these good contracts to public safety was a ton of state aid," Rivera said.
City Council President Frank Moran didn't seem optimistic about the prospects of getting more money to add more police officers to the city payroll.
"We know we aren't going to get any more money, so what can we do?" Moran asked.
"I realize we need more police officers, but we got a bigger issue," Moran said, referring to lenient treatment by the court system of criminal defendants.
"People are being arrested. And within a month, they're out," Moran said.
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