Turning a Dangerous City into a Safe One


Turning a Dangerous City into a Safe One

August 8, 2000 23 min read
Edward Davis
Policy Analyst
I have been asked to speak about my city, Lowell, Massachusetts, and how very different a place it has become since 1993. There are many reasons for this change. First, there are broad areas like the economy, tougher sentencing, and a city manager who understands what works. Smaller issues such as increased attention to street cleaning in the downtown, improved civic pride, and an intense desire to improve the city also play an important role in creating an environment where improvement is possible. However, I am here particularly to discuss the Lowell Police Department. I am here most importantly to discuss the role that over 350 people, sworn and civilian, who comprise our department played in a remarkable turnaround in our agency, and thus the city.

You see, our city was suffering from a terrible crime and perception problem, which thwarted every attempt at economic development and revitalization that was made in the downtown and in our neighborhoods. A crime problem that was so pervasive that no one thought it could be fixed. I am happy to say that a new method of policing and managing fixed that problem.

No level of crime is acceptable, and we still strive each day toward our goal of making Lowell the safest city of its size in the nation. I am proud to report that the change that we have experienced is so obvious and so date specific and the crime-rate drop so precipitous that there is no doubt about the reason. It is my belief that the changes in policing account in large part for the difference in the look and feel of our city. It can be replicated. I am proud of the work that the men and women in our department have accomplished.

Researchers in many fields use the study of extremes to understand a problem. That is why what we have experienced is worthy of study.

Three Issues
My own experience in Lowell and what I have seen in other cities where I have had the honor of working with and learning from police officers lead me to believe that safety is vital to the rebirth of great American cities. Safe streets and public places are the cornerstone of economic development. Mayor Buddy Cianci from Providence, Rhode Island, spoke of just this during a presentation in our city recently. He said, "First thing, the city must be safe. You could be giving away fifty dollar bills in the downtown and if the city is not safe, no one will come." We in Lowell have also found this to be true.

I believe that police agencies must be viewed specifically as agencies of municipal government, not simply as the agency that acts as the front end of the criminal justice system. Police agencies are an integral part of municipal government. Rapid response and apprehension are vital police missions, but prevention is always preferable. If you tell the average victim that they have a choice of not being hit over the head or of being hit over the head and having the police prosecute the suspect, you will receive a unanimous response. They would not want to be hit.

Finally, I believe that to support economic development in communities, and to include police agencies in municipal government, fundamental changes in police management must be made. Police agencies must incorporate first-rate training programs; utilize data and technology; establish employee accountability; and mandate first line supervision that manages, mentors, and sets the operational culture with clear consequences for failures. The support of line-level police officers by a local government structure that recognizes that police do far more than simply enforce the law is necessary. In truth, police spend much more of their time mediating, protecting, setting community standards, restoring order, and personalizing local government than they do enforcing the law. Governments and the police need to build a continuum of services that protect the citizenry from crime and prevent criminal opportunities from developing. This is best accomplished through city agencies working in concert. In Lowell we are at the planning tables. But having the police at the planning table was not always the order of the day.

My Life
I am a cop. I come from a police family. My father was a Lowell police officer for 24 years. My brother is a police sergeant in Lowell. I am a 22-year veteran of this department. I worked the streets on late nights, walking a route and driving a police car. I became a detective and worked Vice and then Narcotics. I was on the street during the drug wars of the 1980s; I eventually commanded a regional narcotics squad of 20 men and women. We worked with the state police and, primarily, the Drug Enforcement Administration, working cases from Colombia through Miami and New York into northern New England. I worked my way up through the ranks and was appointed superintendent of police in 1994. It is an incredible honor to serve as the police chief in the city where you grew up. As I serve my friends and neighbors I am routinely asked to be involved in solving the complex problems encountered each day in an urban environment. I enjoy this role because I am passionate about policing. My ultimate goal is to get people to understand and appreciate the police. My goal in this office is to advocate for and to provide the police with the tools and training they need to be safe and to do their job while, at the same time, setting a standard for service that the community deserves.

I believe policing to be a high calling in the public service arena. I have witnessed selfless acts of courage and compassion. I have seen education and professionalism increase dramatically in this service, and I know that the intelligence, commitment, and experience that police officers possess can improve the community in which they live.

My father
My dad was a Lowell police officer. He passed away while still on the job. He was assigned to work the neighborhood where we lived. At his wake, there was a line of neighborhood people, friends and acquaintances, stretching for a block outside the funeral home. Many people there told our family of the help and many good deeds my father had performed, on duty and off, for their families. The people he policed held him in high esteem. I recall a comment by a local attorney still today. He said, "Your dad was great. He never hurt anyone."

It is ironic then that the police department in that year, 1978, made official recognition of my father's achievements by referencing only a bank robber he had captured. You see, by any measure of a professional police officer, my father was marginal at best. He did not make many arrests. He did not write many tickets, and he was likely to release someone if they promised reparations and acknowledged their victim. The police department had no official policy for recognition of the good will that my dad had fostered with the community. This was true in spite of the importance that the department's reputation plays in effective policing.

1978 was also the year I joined the force and was taught policing. Arrest and prosecution were the order of the day. Our mission was to determine if a crime had been committed and to take appropriate action. Our worth as police officers was measured by an administration that valued arrest and prosecution rates and personal courage.

Rapid response and arrest are still vital police missions. However, police organizations in 1978 had no recognition of the importance of an individual police officer and community contact. Community relations was relegated to a single officer who was tasked with public-relations functions. He only put out the fires after a bad incident. Officers who were interested did problem solving on a limited, ad hoc basis. Management tolerated this as long as it did not take too long. I vowed that I would change that.

The City of Lowell
Lowell is a dense, urban community in the northeast corner of Massachusetts. We are the fourth largest city in the Commonwealth with a population of 103,439. The city is economically, linguistically, and culturally diverse. Throughout history America's newest immigrants have made Lowell home. These groups have added to the richness of the city with great restaurants, new shopping opportunities, and expanded cultural pursuits. Differences in language and culture, however, have created some challenges for policing. An influx of Southeast Asian immigrants, mostly Cambodian refugees, resulted in an unprecedented demographic change in the city. Lowell's population may well be more heavily Cambodian than that of any other city in the country. Mostly hard working people with a tremendous desire for education and a strong work ethic, some of their children have, unfortunately, gravitated toward gangs. This has resulted in turf battles that turned deadly. Young children were killed in drive-by shootings. With other groups, the drug problem surfaced and became intractable; prostitution and related violent crime became common throughout the city.

Perhaps due to its proximity to New York and easy access to points north and south on the interstate, Lowell became a hot spot in the Northeast for heroin and cocaine trafficking. In 1990 the U.S. Attorney for the district of Massachusetts identified Lowell as a source city for heroin and cocaine in New England. At about this time, the city experienced business closings, a plummeting real estate market, serious unemployment, and a rising crime rate. The city was not recognized as safe or welcoming. As evidence of that, in 1993, after declaring bankruptcy, the former world headquarters of Wang, a new 18-story building, sold at auction for $525,000.

The Police Department and our Situation
The Lowell Police Department of the late 1980s was underfunded and understaffed. The community and eventually the city leaders were not supportive. Our reputation was damaged due to brutality suits and internal squabbling. These findings siphoned off financial resources and drew our public image to its lowest level ever. A bunker mentality existed, resulting in further erosion of the public's support. Staffing dropped to unacceptable levels of 159 sworn officers by 1993: an east-coast city of Lowell's size typically has about 250 to 300 officers. This level resulted in enormous workloads and an unacceptable degree of triaged police responses. It was dangerous for the officers left on the street. A vicious cycle of increased crime and decreased resources began to spiral out of control. As businesses and residents fled the city, the tax base eroded, furthering the downward trend. Downtown merchants that were left sought private security to patrol the business improvement district. This district was organized to solely address the crime problem.

As the head of the Narcotics unit, I knew that community meetings at the time felt like open warfare. They would shoot at us with problems, recriminations, and the always-hurtful "Dunkin' Donut" jokes. We would shoot back at them with arrest rates, prosecution rates, the latest drug- money seizure, and the latest estimate of drug confiscations.

But the people were not happy with our statistics; they wanted the problems to go away. Notwithstanding some successes, people didn't feel safe in their neighborhoods. You see, Mrs. Smith would call and tell us that her next door neighbor was selling drugs. Then two of my detectives would routinely spend the next two weeks making buys, using informants, drafting a search warrant, and executing it. Even if we got the drugs, and that was always a crapshoot, the drug dealer would be bailed out faster than the detective could finish writing the arrest report. Many dealers who were arrested multiple times told us that they had to sell more drugs to pay for lawyers and fines. This does not help Mrs. Smith who lives next door. She doesn't care for our statistics or for our explanations about probable cause. She wants the problem to go away. Despite all our work and success in prosecutions we were failing the community.

Union Street: Is there a better way?
We had gotten into a bit of an arms race with the drug dealers. We started off executing about five search warrants a year during the seventies. By 1993 we were executing over 200 a year. The first search warrant I went on, I was selected to open the door because I was the biggest. It also occurred to me that I was the largest target as well, but I didn't say that. After a while the drug dealers got better locks and my shoulder started to hurt. I still recall going into the police garage to get the sledgehammer for the first time. That door came down easily, but the dealers eventually started to barricade the doors. We then brought a ram, but soon even that did not work.

In the seventies, finding a gun was unusual; in the early nineties, it was common. In response to this escalation we had established conventional law enforcement partnerships and worked daily in a task force with the Massachusetts State Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration. We concentrated on organized crime and narcotics trafficking. We arrested individuals on RICO and CCE cases at the federal level and worked numerous state and federal wiretaps to support prosecutions of narcotics kingpins.

I found myself standing, one cold winter night in 1993, on Union Street. We were executing a search warrant. I realized that we had now found ourselves up against street-level Dominican distribution networks controlled by men who had prior military experience. It showed in the way they ran their drug business. Sentries stood front and back. There were barricaded doors and windows on the first floor. Dealers worked twelve-hour shifts. In response to this threat we were ordered to utilize our regional SWAT team on every entry.

Union Street was a particularly bad area for drugs, and the tenement we were hitting was the scene of numerous shootings and more than one homicide. I stood by and watched the SWAT team storm the house and break in two street-level windows. They threw flash bangs into the apartment, disorienting everyone inside. The fire department and the ambulance stood by to assist. The SWAT team did an excellent job of clearing the suspects, securing weapons, and seizing narcotics during what was in fact a military operation.

In spite of this success, I knew that we had recently been criticized in a letter to the editor about just such an operation. A citizen wrote of her dismay when seeing men, with light machine guns, dressed in battle dress uniforms on a city street. I shook my head and rationalized the criticism by saying that people just don't understand what we are up against. But I had an uneasy feeling. We were meeting force with force, just what we had been trained to do. As a matter of fact, we were a one-act show. The implied or actual show of force justified by the general laws of the Commonwealth and the Massachusetts and U.S. Constitutions was pretty much what we did. We had not used deadly force to this point, but the handwriting was on the wall. I asked myself, "Is there a better way?" We found that there was another way. Instead of hitting the problem head on we opted to go around it.

The Laconia Bar: "Always a good crime"
You see, most every cop I know loves to be in on the action. I confess that I still enjoy turning on the lights and siren and going to a hot call. The traditional police system encourages that. We distribute medals and commendations and promotions to the officers who distinguish themselves on the field of battle so to speak.

When I was a young patrolman, I wanted to work car "6." That was where the action was. Downtown had lots of bars and lots of crime. I remember one bar, the Laconia, a legend. Fights happened there every night. Drug dealing, prostitution, and guns infested the bar. One old cop said to me, "Leave them alone in there. At least we know where to find them." You see, if officers are being assessed only on their ability to make good arrests and prosecutions, in a twisted bit of logic they need a place like the Laconia. It always gave me a good crime. My brother and I happened to respond to a fight call there one night. He got the guy still standing, I went to the victim on the ground. My guy had been stabbed in the upper abdomen. This was pretty standard fare for the Laconia. I spoke to the victim, got the ambulance, and then went to the hospital to interview him. When I opened the door to the trauma room, the doctor had the man's chest open and his hand inside it trying to stop the bleeding. He couldn't, and my brother had a homicide case.

After I took over as chief, the neighbors were complaining about that bar. I asked the crime analysis unit to map crime in that neighborhood. Not surprisingly, an obvious cluster appeared around the Laconia. Neighborhood police were sent to speak to the owner, and he was told to clean up the bar. He could not. Strict enforcement of the alcohol laws by the beat officers had the bar closed within months. Crime disappeared. We had utilized neighborhood input, police data, and administrative controls to correct the problem. It worked. Officers are now managed and assessed on what their neighborhood looks like, not simply on their arrest numbers. Crime is still down in that neighborhood, and several abandoned triple-deckers have been recently renovated.

Failure and Success on Lagrange Street
For 20 years, the junkies would assemble each morning on Lagrange Street for their wake-up bag of heroin. Lagrange Street was less than a mile from city hall, adjacent to a public-housing complex. Like most open-air drug markets, it consisted of closely compacted tenements, small alleys, and much poverty. Junkies need heroin to function. Scores of them would arrive. They came from all over New England. One afternoon I approached a group of about a dozen men and women who were not Latino in this heavily Latino neighborhood. They were all from Gloucester, 30 miles away, waiting for a delivery. This was a daily occurrence.

We would meet at 5:00 a.m. in a clandestine location and set up a command post: 30 to 40 police officers dressed like drug addicts. We would set up observation posts, communications, undercover officers, and arrest teams. We would book 40 or more addicts and dealers by day's end. We would tell the community that we were cleaning up the neighborhood, but we also knew that after we left the dealers would be back. We went in like the Marines and established a beachhead, but we withdrew just as quickly. The dealers knew this and played us. Our stats piled up, but the problem continued. One operation started on a Sunday morning. A group of dealers were pursued toward a Catholic church by a phalanx of undercover police. As the parishioners left Sunday services they saw a large group of what appeared to be bad guys rolling around on the ground. They did not know that this was their tax dollars at work. Upon close examination, it was ironic that the very tactics we employed, flooding the area with people dressed like addicts in an effort to arrest our way out of this problem, only added to the perception of public disorder. We actually made the area look worse than it was.

To change our tactics and help create longstanding change, we began to strategically plan a concerted response to this neighborhood. We established a team of six patrol officers under the direction of a sergeant. This team was instructed that they were in charge. They were trained in the concepts of disorder management and the broken-windows theory. The city manager fully supported our effort, and the officers were told that every city department was available 24 hours a day to assist. They towed abandoned cars and had the DPW clean up trash. They encouraged landlords to evict tenants selling drugs. For the first time patrol officers could tell detectives where search warrants had to be executed. Officers were encouraged to visit area businesses. Of their own accord, they began to play basketball with the kids whom they felt were potential trouble. This emphasis on mentoring through sports evolved into a flag football league that officers volunteered to coach. Three hundred kids have been involved each year for the past six. The officers became part of the fabric of the neighborhood. I cannot say with certainty how much crime was prevented as a result of this effort, but my sense is it was substantial.

Teaming up with the city inspectional services and establishing beat officers permanently to the area did work. So did improved lighting. Using search warrants to allow health inspectors entree to housing was more important than arrest and seizure of evidence. Shutting down hazardous housing owned by slumlords led to tax title seizures and eventual thinning out of the housing stock. The drug dealers, looking for the easiest place to deal simply left.

These new tactics expanded on area officers' proven ability to arrest and prosecute offenders. Arrest and prevention were both viable alternatives and valued by the community and the management. As forecasted by the research, there was no discernible displacement issue within the city limits. Remarkably, crime in the contiguous communities dropped also.

Following this success, we rapidly decentralized the department, establishing six storefront precincts strategically placed in the core of our most troubled neighborhoods, and we flew the flag and made a statement that things had changed. We were staying this time. We placed teams of six patrol officers under the command of a sergeant to instill a territorial imperative. We charged these teams with orders to be visible, we trained them in the concepts of broken windows, and we provided them with data so that they could make intelligent enforcement decisions. We instituted "Compstat," but did not embarrass anyone. We only asked for timely analysis of the data by the officers close to the action and demanded a plan to deal with emerging crime patterns. We pushed accountability and responsibility down and utilized our research and development department to craft new programs. Our staff and the local university frequently evaluate these programs so that our resources are properly directed.

Other neighborhoods with the same problems saw the difference immediately. They organized around getting the same type of policing in their neighborhoods. We had opened the police department to the community. We established the six neighborhood precincts through the help of federal and state community policing grants and a new commitment from local leaders. This de-centralization was not without problems, but we managed them carefully. The cost-benefit analysis is heavily weighted toward the benefit side.

Good Cops and Bad
The Lowell Police Department's issues with brutality had their roots in a philosophy that is reflective of many police agencies that are in trouble with the community. The police act as a family and it was "us against the world." The result of this culture was an internal affairs process that was not valid. Bad cops, the few that there were, got sued and lost. However, there was even danger to the good cops. During my first few months as chief, I was summoned to testify in a state civil suit alleging excessive force. Two very good officers made a valid felony motor vehicle stop. I reviewed the record and found legitimate reasons for each action that was employed. Unfortunately, although the description was very close, they stopped the wrong people. Damages were alleged due to a pat down frisk where the officers kicked the victim's feet apart when he did not follow instructions as well as alleged attendant psychological problems from being stopped by officers with guns. The officers were stopping the vehicle for the kidnapping of a young woman at gunpoint. The officers were found negligent.

The defining moment in the trial came when the plaintiff's attorney held up a chart showing the 19 internal affairs complaints officially registered against the department during the preceding year. Nineteen complaints against a department of our size were proven to be an extremely low number. Most telling, however, was that each complaint investigated was closed out as unfounded. This obvious attempt to justify all acts of misconduct was futile. Worse, it damaged the credibility of good cops who were trying to do a dangerous and important job. I vowed this situation would not continue. We now have a valid and fair internal affairs function. Although some officers think it is there to hurt them, in the long run good cops are protected by it. This is not popular among the rank and file, but as you know, it is a crucial step in building the public trust.

Cross Point: The Effects of Crime Reduction
I mentioned Wang and the sale of their 18-story corporate headquarters in 1993 for $525,000. Christopher Kelly and his partner, Lou Alvarado, made that incredible bid and acquired the property. In 1994, Kelly and I met at a business gathering and he told me of his difficulty in renting out his newly renovated space. A major problem was vehicles being stolen from his parking lot. I told him of my need for training space. He offered substantial space in the building for our training needs at a reasonable price, and we offered to place an old marked cruiser in his lot for prevention purposes. The increased utilization of the premises by police personnel inevitably led to arrests for crimes in progress. Ultimately the reputation of the building came to be one that was inhospitable to crime. Mr. Kelly will tell you that increased police attention led to improved corporate rentals. The new Cross Point Towers was fully rented in 1996 and remains so today. Messrs. Kelly and Alvarado sold the building this year for over $100 million. This story is an extreme example of the specific ways in which our department is involved in matters of commerce. Similar stories happen each day. Research is necessary to understand just how much is at stake here.

What Worked
I have touched on a few things that I believe can make a city a healthy, safe, and economically viable place to live. To accomplish these changes through a police agency is not easy. There are hundreds of years of tradition to consider. There is the popular media that glorifies the adventurous aspects of policing. There are, by definition, differences between the way the community and the police view a neighborhood.

In Lowell we have begun to overcome these challenges by building partnerships and by benchmarking the best practices. Internally, we have changed training assignments, expectations, and operations. We have built relationships with residents, business partners, academic partners, and social service agencies. These newly forged relationships have allowed officers and people to get to know one another as competent individuals who can be trusted. This trust forms the foundation for building community safety. Most important among the changes is the organizational restructuring undertaken over the last six years.

Since I became superintendent in 1994 there have been several management and structural changes in the Lowell Police Department. Several have been controversial and reluctantly accepted. As a result of our early success with neighborhood precincts, my office was inundated with calls requesting police precincts in each neighborhood in the city. Combined with a commitment to work more closely with the community, I recognized a need for a direct link to community residents. I designed a civilian position of community liaison to work outside the chain of command and directly for the superintendent as a means of direct communication between my office and the community. This placed a civilian in the command staff, which was initially perceived as a threat to police tradition and culture.

With the help of federal money, we civilianized the entire 911 Communications Center. This increased the number of officers on the street and eliminated the communications center as a dumping ground for officers currently unsuitable for work on the street. We also had civilians run the jail we maintain for overnight arrestees. We established the crime analysis unit with civilian personnel and did the same with our grant office and research and development staff. These changes were extremely important to increase visibility on the streets, to professionalize the various functions, and to put officers in positions consistent with their training.

Freeing up sworn officers and increasing the ranks with additional funds, allowed us to think differently about police deployment. We had created a special unit of community police officers but found that it failed. The public liked it, but it created dissension in the ranks. Patrol officers began to hate community police officers more than they did detectives. Having decided that community policing would be the operational philosophy of the Lowell Police Department, we dissolved the so-called grin and wave squad, and expected all personnel to adopt a community policing philosophy. This has meant that officers in the neighborhood, on foot, bikes, horses, and in cars are expected to meet with members of the community formally and informally. All of this is based on partnerships and relationships between officers and individual residents. It is still a work in progress, but it is happening.

To best serve the community and to increase accountability and responsibility among officers, management has been decentralized geographically rather than temporally. Lowell has been divided into three sectors, each with two precincts commanded by a captain who has 24-hour responsibility for the supervision of personnel, for all crimes, and for community relations. This supervision and assignment structure has been successful for solving problems, investigating crimes, and building community partnerships. But it was not enough. It became apparent that more changes were needed to get the appropriate police-patrol resources back into the neighborhoods.

The fundamental premise for restructuring this police agency is really an old idea. It is frequently recounted in the police management books that the patrol force is the backbone of any police department. That may be the theory, but the practice has been different. Specialty units that continually sap the strength of the patrol force and routinely capture the most talented patrol officers are really what police administrators turn to in addressing complex crime problems.

In Lowell we have made a conscious effort to return policing to the streets. My desire is to utilize the knowledge, talents, and abilities of the line-level police officer as a generalist. I have a firm belief that specializing police response in particular areas, homicide, domestic violence, property crime, and so forth is an old-fashioned idea based on the premise that criminals specialize in certain crimes. The literature clearly shows that criminals operate geographically. The narcotics problem has forced criminals to resort to all types of crime.

In Lowell, we have reduced the size of specialty units and increased the number of patrol officers in neighborhoods so they may best learn about the people--both good and bad--who live and work in those neighborhoods. We have even decentralized the detective bureaus. Most detectives now work under the direction of a patrol captain in a police district. This was an extremely controversial decision that cut to the core of officers' career expectations. But this management decision has been successful. It works for the officers, the neighborhood detectives, and our constituents. Detectives and officers have a closer relationship, which improves communication and our capacity to solve crimes.

Remaining challenges
Policing today is faced with many professional challenges. Racial profiling issues, use of force, our image with communities of color, and, significantly, competition from the private sector are complex problems as yet unresolved. A balance of good, strong enforcement with effective prevention is the key to economic development. Building trust in the community will flow from this proper balance. As an industry we must understand our role in economic development and make the rest of government understand it too. Balancing enforcement with service cannot be accomplished without a hard look at police management. Mentoring, managing police culture and stress, and early identification of problem employees are crucial. Making policing a profession and the attendant setting of standards of practice are vital. If we can get consistency in hamburgers across this country, we should expect motor vehicle stops and policing to be consistent also.

Managing change in policing is difficult but I have seen tremendous examples of it across the country. The Washington, D.C., area is full of truly great police leaders, model change agents who are moving the profession forward. We are up to the task. This is an exciting time to be in policing.

Edward F. Davis III (no relation to former Los Angeles Police Chief Edward Davis) is the Superintendent of Police in Lowell, Massachusetts.


Edward Davis

Policy Analyst