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In Lawrence, a blue line stretched thin

Friday night patrols shed light on steep challenges as cash-strapped city fights crime with fewer officers

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By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / May 25, 2011

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LAWRENCE — Lieutenant Shawn Conway trotted down the crumbling steps of the Police Department on a recent Friday night and checked his watch. It was almost 11.

“We’ve been busy all night,’’ he said, walking to his cruiser. “It finally slowed down, thank God.’’

Moments later, however, he was racing to search for a man fleeing a domestic disturbance. Then, 10 minutes later, he stood on a bridge consoling a mother whose son had just tried to throw himself into the Merrimack River. As they talked, attention turned to a young man nearby who bore a strong resemblance to a suspect wanted for slitting his grandmother’s throat the day before.

Five years ago, Lawrence police were touting a steady drop in crime and an 18-month period with no homicides — a startling statistic for a city that in the 1990s had been considered one of the state’s most dangerous. Officials at the time credited community policing initiatives and sophisticated gang intelligence for the decline.

Today, the antigang unit and other specialized squads no longer exist, the victims of cuts imposed last year by Mayor William Lantigua, who slashed funding for the police and other city departments as he confronted a massive budget deficit. Community policing, a law enforcement philosophy that puts more emphasis on preventing violence than responding to it, is virtually nonexistent. Police officials say they barely have the staff to respond to regular calls.

A Globe reporter spent two Friday nights with police officers as they patrolled this city of about 77,000. The ride-alongs, as well as interviews with other officers and top brass, suggest a force that is tense, on edge, and always waiting for the eruption that will overwhelm its diminished numbers.

Since the cuts took effect last July, the number of police officers has fallen from 151 to 111, down from a high of 161 in 2009.

By comparison, Lynn — a city of about 90,000 — has 168; Quincy, which has a population of about 92,000, has 201 officers.

Soon after the cuts were proposed last summer, Police Chief John Romero warned they would be like putting out a welcome map for criminals. Statistics compiled by the police appear to justify his concerns.

The number of major crimes like aggravated assault, burglary, and robbery has risen 43 percent from June 2010 to April 2011 (the most recent figures available), compared with the same time period the year before. Aggravated assaults and auto thefts have largely driven the spike.

“You never know what’s going to happen,’’ said Detective Thomas M. Cuddy, an eight-year veteran of the department. “This is Lawrence.’’

Lantigua, who approved the ride-along, declined to discuss the effects of the cuts in a brief telephone interview yesterday.

“Nobody is willing to work for free, and the city has no money,’’ he said.

Morale at the Police Department is low. Police work out of a cinderblock building on Lowell Street that was built in 1963 and does not look as if it has seen much renovation since.

File cabinets are wedged under stairwells because there is no other space for them. The doors are scuffed. The concrete stairs leading up to the department are breaking up. Cobwebs drift over award plaques adorning the walls around the front desk.

“It’s a dump,’’ said Captain Roy Vasque, 43.

When the specialized units were in place, they often worked late on Friday and Saturday nights, which meant that they were on call if more patrols were needed on the street.

“Now . . . there are no extra people,’’ Vasque said. “There’s no one to rely on. We have enough guys to answer the calls, but we’re being reactive, not proactive.’’

Publicly, police decline to talk about the controversy with the mayor and others in City Hall.

But a recent spate of stories has highlighted that tension.

Last Friday night, police said the mayor’s chief economic development officer, smelling of alcohol, berated them for towing illegally parked cars outside a restaurant and allegedly impeded a tow truck — an incident first reported by the Lawrence Eagle Tribune. The officer said he decided not to arrest the official, Patrick Blanchette, for disorderly conduct because he feared retribution from the mayor’s administration. Blanchette has denied the officers’ version of events.

Some Lawrence police officers have become major sources of information for federal and state investigators probing Lantigua’s control of certain businesses connected to the city, including nightclubs, according to people familiar with the investigation.

Romero said he does not blame Lantigua for the cuts, but he is worried about the long-term effect they will have.

“It’s a tough economy. We were hit really hard,’’ he said. “But I think any future of a city is based on its public safety. People are not going to move here, they’re not going to bring businesses here if they don’t feel safe.’’

The Globe reporter and photographer patrolled with Lawrence officers from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. — typically the busiest times for police, when people are partying at clubs or private homes. The patrols were marked by long periods of quiet, punctuated by the occasional call for a fight outside a club that would break up long before police arrived.

During down time, officers checked in on clubs where the music was too loud or drove by bars they suspected were engaged in illegal gambling. Often, if they saw a small crowd lingering outside a club, smoking or chatting, they would order them back inside.

Occasionally, they ran into drug addicts and prostitutes they have known for years.

“Come here, Sasha,’’ Patrolman Gary Yancey told a weathered-looking woman standing on Broadway. “You all right? You eating and stuff?’’

“Oh yeah, honey,’’ she said softly. “You can’t tell? I weigh 140 pounds.’’

On his rounds, Conway — burly and dry-witted — watched a reed-thin man sway across a liquor store parking lot.

“You all right?’’ Conway, 48, asked him.

“Yeah,’’ he drawled.

“Keep up the good work,’’ Conway replied.

He was not as friendly to three men standing near Lowell and Margin streets, a notorious drug spot known as “Crack Corner.’’

“You guys about done here?’’ Conway asked them. They stared back, eyes wide, and nodded.

“Hit the bricks!’’ Conway barked as the men scattered.

In December, Lantigua and Romero asked club owners and restaurants that hold liquor licenses to contribute to a voluntary fund that would pay for four officers to supplement patrols on Friday and Saturday nights. The businesses would be assessed a weekly amount ranging from $50 to $250 based on their occupancy rates.

The city had received just under $11,000 as of May 13, according to records, but police have already spent almost $42,000 to pay for the extra officers.

“We don’t know how much longer [the club patrol] is going to continue,’’ Romero said, because not enough businesses were contributing.

Rafael Beamud, the owner of Copa Lounge, one of Lawrence’s most popular clubs, said that he wants a strong police presence and pays $200 for a private police detail to supplement his security.

But Beamud, who said he is a retired Cambridge police officer, said he does not see why he should pay an additional $250 a week that he was asked to contribute.

“My capacity is about 500. You have clubs that are 2,000 capacity,’’ he said. “That doesn’t seem to be equitable to what I should be paying.’’

Outside Copa, where officers constantly drive by to check on the crowds, club-goer Chantal Chunilal said she believes the cuts to the department have compromised the city’s safety.

Chunilal, who works as a beverage promoter, said liquor store owners in Lawrence have told her they have been robbed. Recently, she said, she watched as a man smashed a car window in broad daylight and ran off with an iPod.

“I wouldn’t come here if I was going to be stabbed or shot or anything,’’ said Chunilal, 34, who waved at passing officers, many of whom she knew by name. Without the additional officers on the paid details, she said, “we would be so worse off.’’

Just after 2 one morning, the clubs began to close.

Outside TNS Nightclub, Yancey was about to arrest a man he had caught relieving himself when a loud argument among several men in a parking lot threatened to erupt into a fight.

Yancey ran to the group, waved his flashlight, and in a booming voice ordered women in skimpy dresses and men in tight shirts to leave.

“Everybody in their cars right now!’’ he shouted, his voice rising into a fierce yell. “Shut it down. You got a ride? Get in the car! Let’s go. Let’s go. Off my street!’’

The crowd quickly cleared. The man Yancey had initially stopped was in handcuffs, fuming in the back seat of a squad car. Another officer who had rushed to the scene smiled tiredly at Yancey, who smiled back.

Yancey asked: “Where to now, Mike?’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.