That many American cities, both large and small, saw their crime rates drop sharply during the past decade is well known. But it's a good bet you can't name the city that experienced the biggest drop in crime during the late 1990s.
Boston? New York? Try Lowell, a mill town that used to compete for the dubious distinction of having New England's most dangerous streets.
According to statistics recently released by the FBI, Lowell's 1994-1999 crime reductions exceeded those of all other American cities with populations over 100,000, including Boston and New York. In 1993, criminals carried out more than 9,000 serious offenses in Lowell. In 1999, an improved statistics system recorded only about 3,200. Big-time drug sales have nearly vanished, along with graffiti, vandalism and public disorder. Today, Lowell provides streets as safe as those in a similarly sized city.
What gives? For one thing, Edward Davis became chief of the Lowell Police Department in 1993 and shook things up. Under Davis, the department hired more police officers, trained them better and made them more responsive to the community. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Lowell never had enough cops on the street. When he took over as chief, Davis found himself commanding 160 men and women, about 100 fewer than most East Coast cities of a comparable size. Today, the department has 260 officers.
But just putting more cops on the street didn't ensure Lowell's success.
Cities such as Providence, and Springfield have an adequate number of officers, and yet their crime rates are higher than Lowell's. An improved economy alone can't explain things either. True, the Lowell area is enjoying an economic boom, but the city itself still has poverty and illegitimacy rates comparable to other small New England cities.
In fact, it was better policing that helped bring about the city's economic boom. In 1993 Lowell's quasi-public economic development agency identified crime as the major factor keeping business out of the city. As crime became a non-issue, business boomed. For the first time in a generation, construction has begun on the first market-rate housing in Lowell's once-desolate downtown. Meanwhile, a large office complex once owned by the Wang Corporation that sold for $ 525,000 in 1993 fetched more than $ 100 million in 1998.
Public support for the police department also runs deep: Local businesses two years ago raised $200,000 to pay for a few items the city's budget couldn't cover. Lowell's police department reciprocates by keeping its officers close to the people they protect.
Thanks to the added manpower, Lowell fields more officers on foot than it has any time since World War II.
But rather than following the route of most cities and siphoning off a limited number of officers into feel-good storefront police stations or bicycle patrols, Lowell has assigned its entire patrol force to community policing. To bring its force still closer to the community, Davis has radically decentralized the department. Except for a handful of administrators, major crimes detectives and a small vice squad, nearly all of Lowell's officers now work out of three sectors under the command of individual captains.
"It's like being the police chief of my own little city," says Robert DeMoura, one of Lowell's sector commanders.
Thanks to Davis, Lowell's police force also is willing to fight the unglamorous "quality of life" offenses such as speeding, littering and graffiti that some police officers consider beneath them. An April 2000 crackdown on traffic violations in Lowell brought accident rates down roughly 10 percent in a two-week period. Similar efforts against graffiti, litter and vandalism have brought about equally stunning results. And Lowell simply didn't move the crime out of town either. Crime fell, often sharply, in most of Lowell's suburbs too.
Even Davis' critics admit that people feel better about the police. "There's no doubt that there's a much better reputation on the streets," says Dennis Moriarty, president of the local patrolmen's union.
The department is not without problems, including a constantly changing management structure and a complaint process that some officers say is slanted against them. But the numbers speak for themselves: Edward Davis' leadership transformed Lowell from a dangerous city into a safe one.
Eli Lehrer is a Bradley Fellow studying crime and urban issues at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Published in The Boston Herald.