For years, the news out of Lawrence was almost always bad. An old mill city and one of the state’s poorest, Lawrence was plagued by gangs, drugs and violence and was known as the auto insurance fraud capital of Massachusetts.
So when more than a year passed without a single murder, even the city’s staunchest defenders were impressed.
“There is some luck in it,” said Police Chief John Romero, “but it’s not all luck. It’s a lot of hard work by the community and the police.”
The last homicide in the city was on Aug. 26, 2004, when 36-year-old Rafael Castro was shot in the head in his sixth-floor apartment by someone looking for drugs. A 20-year-old man was charged with murder.
Romero credits community policing and a focus on the three driving forces behind most killings in the city — drugs, gangs and domestic violence — for what is now a 19-month run without a homicide.
The last time the city went a year without a murder was in 1972.
Big difference from Boston
The streak contrasts sharply with a dramatic rise in murders in Boston, which hit a 10-year high last year with 75.
Criminologists says it is unfair to compare the two cities. Lawrence, a city of about 72,000 people 28 miles north of Boston, is only six square miles, and is thus more likely to respond well to community policing, a system that relies on close cooperation between police officers and residents.
In Boston, with a population of about 600,000, police have had to deal with an increase in the young adult population, an influx of guns and the release of criminals who completed prison sentences for crimes committed in the 1990s. Also, many witnesses in Boston are too afraid to come forward. Wearing T-shirts with the message “Stop Snitching” became a popular intimidation tactic.
“There’s definitely a culture of intimidation out there that is very prevalent,” said Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole. “I’ve had people stand up at meetings and say, ‘We really want to help you, but we are not going to tell you anything.”’
One reason: Watchful neighbors
In Lawrence, many residents are vigilant about reporting anything suspicious, said Gloria Schwartz, president of the Prospect Hill-Back Bay Neighborhood Association.
“We had one young lady who had a list of license plates she had copied down. Her neighborhood was overrun with drug activity,” she said.
Romero, who worked in the New York City police department for 30 years, said he brought some of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s philosophy of working on “quality of life” issues — noise, graffiti, trash — when he became Lawrence’s chief in 1999. He said he attends every neighborhood group meeting, sometimes more than a dozen each month.
When residents see police responding to the smaller problems, they are more likely to report a crack house in their neighborhood or other crime, Romero said. “If you prevent these things at a lower level, you may be able to prevent some more serious crime,” he said.
The cooperation has helped police build a database on gang members. It lists known members, their cars, associates, girlfriends and rivals. So when there is a gang-related shooting, police have somewhere to start.
Watching domestic matters
The department also started a domestic violence unit, and officers repeatedly visit both victims and repeated offenders. “We are checking with her to see how she’s being treated, and we’re letting them know we’re keeping an eye on them,” Romero said. “That goes a long way.”
Lawrence has averaged about five murders a year for the past seven years, with a peak of eight in 2003.
“With these small numbers, you can’t really know whether there’s a trend here,” said Daniel LeClair, a professor of criminology at Boston University.
“I think it’s a wonderful event to see 19 months go by, particularly in a city where so many of us have been worried about the gangs and community conflict, but you need a longer period of time to see whether this is just a one-time event or a pattern.”
Still, residents of Lawrence are happy about the reduction in the murder rate.
Fausto Nunez, 53, who moved to Lawrence from New York City 17 years ago and is raising a family here, participates in neighborhood cleanups, removing trash, tires and other debris, and is president of his crime watch.
“We’ve tried to clean up the community of gangs and drugs, and this is proof that it is a cleaner and safer city,” Nunez said.