- The Washington Times - Monday, March 20, 2006

LAWRENCE, Mass. (AP) — For years this old mill city was beset 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 slaying, 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 Lawrence 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 has been charged with murder.

Chief Romero credits community policing and a focus on the three reasons behind most killings in the city — drugs, gangs and domestic violence — for what is now a 19-month period without a homicide.

The last time the city went a year without a killing was in 1972. Lawrence has averaged five homicides a year for the past seven years, with a peak of eight in 2003.

The streak contrasts sharply with a dramatic rise in homicides 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, thus is 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.’”

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.

Chief Romero, who worked in the New York City police department for 30 years, said he brought some of former Mayor Rudolph W. 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, Chief Romero said. “If you prevent these things at a lower level, you may be able to prevent some more serious crime.”

The cooperation has helped police build a database on gang members.

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