City's Survivors Cop an Attitude on Crime

The Herald News
By:  Bill Hughes and John Gohlke
March 11, 2000

Much like Paterson today, Lowell, Mass., once endured a reputation as a place to leave by nightfall.

Organized prostitution rings, juvenile street gangs, open-air drug markets and all the violent crime that comes with them were rampant, even well after its economic recovery began in the late 1970s.

"It was so bad my kids couldn't use the neighborhood park, because hookers were taking their customers in the bushes and dealers were selling drugs near the swings," said Elaina Roberts, a Lowell mother of three who founded the Back Central Neighborhood Association and spearheaded an effort to get a police precinct established in her area.

FBI reports show that in 1984, during an economic resurgence sparked partly by Lowell's national park designation, major crimes reported there were only slightly above the nationwide rate, in contrast to Paterson. But crime swelled again during the recession of the early 1990s, peaking above the New Jersey city's rate, according to the federal crime reporting system.

In 1990, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration identified Lowell as one of the significant sources of heroin and cocaine distribution in the Northeast. In 1993, there were about 12 violent crimes reported for every 1,000 residents, or 65 percent more than the national average, the FBI reported.

"In the early '90s, the economy had completely fallen apart, the police force was down to under 160 officers, and it was open field around here," said Lowell's city manager, Brian Martin.

Furthermore, Lowell police had a reputation for heavy-handedness and abuse, and brutality and civil rights lawsuits were commonplace.

"I used to have tremendous fights with the old police superintendent," said Dick Howe, the longest-serving member of Lowell's city council. "I used to have kids coming into my office with black eyes and busted jaws all the time. It was terrible."

Ed Davis, a Lowell native whose father and brother were on the force, served 15 years with the police department before becoming its superintendent in 1993. During a 10-year stint on a special narcotics task force with state and federal officers, Davis gained a wealth of experience that eventually informed changes he made in the department.

"We were in a crisis situation," Davis said of the early years. "We tried for a long time to approach the problems up here with conventional methods, but we were just spinning our wheels. In Lowell, we were trying to arrest our way out of the problem, but it became obvious over the years that new ones popped up before you even got the old ones into prison."

When he took over the department, Davis introduced an array of new policies that included hiring 100 officers - bringing the force to more than 250 - extensive training of the entire force and decentralizing operations.

"We went from one central location to having seven precincts, essentially in a ring around the central station," said Davis. "It was so successful, so quickly, we could hardly believe it."

Roberts, the neighborhood activist, said she and others got together and raised money - hosting spaghetti dinners, running raffles and standing in front of churches with cans - to help cover the rent and utilities for a storefront precinct. It was worth it, she said.

"Once we had the constant police presence in the neighborhoods, the dealers and the hookers just disappeared," Roberts said. "The people in the neighborhood were happy to raise the money to pay for the storefront."

The superintendent also adopted a version of the policing method pioneered by former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton known as "comstat," which stands for computer statistics. It involves weekly meetings with commanding officers, reviews of crime and police response, and strategy planning sessions based on the information gathered.

Between 1993 and 1998, Lowell's crime index - a collection of major violent and property crimes reported to police, as defined and compiled by the FBI - plummeted from more than 8,500 to about 4,000, a drop of about 53 percent.

While factors such as an aging population and an improving economy have been credited for declining crime throughout the United States during that period, the crime index nationwide fell just 12 percent. In the first half of 1999, Lowell's crime - unlike Paterson's - was on pace for another drop that would beat the decline nationwide and in cities of similar size.

Lawsuits against Lowell police officers also dropped off sharply. In the four-year period between 1990 and 1994, the city settled 25 cases against police for a total of $729,992. Since 1994, however, the city has settled only eight cases totaling $125,500.

"The change has been nothing short of dramatic, and it's been amazing to watch," said Patrick Cook, a former reporter for the local newspaper who now works as a spokesman for the department. "At public meetings we used to constantly hear complaints about drug dealers, shootings and streetwalkers, but now the complaints are mostly about trash and broken streetlights."

Paterson has also experienced a steady decrease in overall crime this decade, according to FBI statistics, exceeding the national descent but not quite matching Lowell's. Serious crimes went from 11,346 in 1993 to 6,588 in 1998, a decline of about 42 percent.

Paterson also managed to increase its police force by 49 officers last year, bringing the total to 450. That put three officers on the street for every 1,000 residents, a concentration well above the average in the nation and in Lowell, which is now at 2.6 officers per 1,000 residents.

According to preliminary 1999 figures, though, city crime may be rising again. And while the numbers may be lower than they were several years ago, drugs and prostitution remain highly visible problems in the city's poorer neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, lawsuits and brutality complaints against officers were filed on an average of more than one per week last year. When asked for a concise figure on the number of lawsuits filed and the dollar amounts of settlements, the city's public information officer, Bob Grant, said there were too many for the law department to keep track of and refused to have a total compiled.

"The problem we used to have was that people never saw the cops out there doing their jobs," said Mayor Martin G. Barnes. "Now we've got more officers out on the street more of the time, so naturally you're going to get more complaints. The thing you have to remember is that nobody knows what leads up to an incident except the people involved, and you just can't judge a situation till you have all the facts."

Paterson Police Chief Lawrence Spagnola, a 32-year veteran who took over the department in 1998, said he is aware of its problems and actively engaged in fixing them.

In February, officers began taking classes for the first time in "verbal judo," a recently developed technique that helps police nonviolently "disarm" suspects and encourage peaceful cooperation.

"It's a new program which we're starting at the patrol level, but eventually we're hoping to include the entire force," said Spagnola. "Training is continuous here, and we're working to educate not just our officers, but the community, too.

"Above all, an officer has to understand that he's above the street."