LAWRENCE — A few hours after the city cut 41 police jobs on July 1, Marilyn Gonzolez became a crime statistic.
Joining the list of local crime victims was little more than an inconvenience for Gonzolez — her 1996 Honda Accord was stolen on Harrison Street and recovered the next day, minus its radio. But the theft was significant for the city, because it was the first in a surge of vehicle thefts in the six weeks since the police jobs were lost, sparking fears that Lawrence is on a fast track to reclaiming its reputation as the car theft capital of Massachusetts.
"Obviously, everyone knows what's going on in Lawrence," said Gonzolez, a 21-year-old city resident. "We're in a recession. Lots of people are losing their jobs. That's when crime is at the highest. So laying off a bunch of officers is the worst thing you can do, because people are going to take advantage."
After a decade of steady decline, vehicle thefts began climbing almost immediately after police Chief John Romero announced that he was eliminating all seven of his department's special units — including the vehicle fraud and theft unit — to cope with the 41 police jobs and four civilian positions he was losing. Those cuts came on top of 10 jobs eliminated in 2009, which in all have reduced the city's police force by a third, to 110 sworn officers.
There were 187 vehicles reported stolen in Lawrence in June and July, compared to 63 over the same two months last year, according to figures provided by Romero. Another 37 vehicles were reported stolen during the first nine days of August this year, compared to 46 for all of August 2009.
Specific numbers for other crime categories were not immediately available, but Romero predicted crime rates across the board will rise in the coming months. He said vehicle thefts are showing the most dramatic increase in part because of the city's storied history with the problem.
The increases may undo some of the legacy Romero has forged since arriving in Lawrence in 1999 after 30 years with the New York City Police Department.
Lawrence recorded just under 4,000 so-called Part 1 felonies — including murder, rape and robbery — in the year before Romero arrived, according to records he provided. That aggregate number has dropped almost consistently every year since then, to 1,777 last year, which he credits mostly to the seven special units he established. In addition to car thefts, the units targeted gangs, drugs, sexual assaults and other crimes.
All of those units were abolished July 1, when Romero said crime fighting in Lawrence shifted from offense to defense.
"My experience in New York taught me this: You just can't react to crime. You have to deal with the underlying causes," he said. "If you do that, more often than not you can prevent the crime from happening."
More than Romero's legacy may be at stake. The impact of the rise in vehicle thefts will cost even drivers whose cars remain safe in their driveways, according to Daniel Johnston, executive director of the Insurance Fraud Bureau, which the state created in 1991 to fight insurance fraud of all types.
"The increase in thefts the Police Department has seen in the last few months (will) add $5 million a year (to total premiums paid by local drivers) if it continues at this pace," he said. "If you take the claims out of the system, it reduces premiums. If you put theft back in the system, it's going to raise premiums."
The average annual insurance premium for vehicles registered in Lawrence dropped from $2,100 to $1,400 a year between 2000 and 2008, as vehicle theft and insurance fraud dropped, Johnston said. Leonard Degnan, chief of staff for Mayor William Lantigua, said the city's hands were tied by ongoing deficits, a mandate to balance the budget imposed during an earlier state bailout, the property tax cap imposed by Proposition 2 1/2 and unions that would not agree to givebacks. He said the mayor had no choice but to cut spending in the $72 million budget he sent to the City Council.
The police budget was cut $1.4 million, to $11.1 million, in what was the third cut in as many years. Police spending had been as high as $13.8 million in 2008.
"We share the chief's concerns, but there's only two ways you can change the numbers in the police and fire department," Degnan said. "There's additional revenue — and where's that going to come from? — or concessions by the unions. Lawrence unions refused concessions."
Ever since the jobs and the special units have been eliminated, Romero said the "players" in the city's car theft rings have been openly signaling their glee from the street.
"These guys who've been stealing cars, they see guys who were in the auto theft unit (now on regular patrol) in marked cars, and they know they're not following up (on car thefts)," Romero said. "One officer told me, 'I go past these guys and they're smiling at me. They see me in a marked car and they know.'"