March 1, 2001
By Eli Lehrer
In the early 1990s, the milltown-turned-high-tech-center
regularly competed for the dubious distinction of having New
England's most dangerous streets. Today only a handful of cities
over 100,000--all of them wealthy and ethnically
homogenous--provide safer streets than Lowell.
Lowell has experienced some luck, and used federal grants and
other outside resources, but most of its success can be credited to
dramatic reforms at Lowell's police department. Superintendent
Davis's innovations in technology, public relations, officer
training, and accountability have transformed a reviled and
ineffective department into one of America's best.
When Ed Davis commanded the Lowell Vice and Narcotics Squad
during the late 1980s, it outdid itself every year. Only Boston's
vastly larger force managed to seize more narcotics than Lowell's
undermanned unit. Through vigorous prosecutions in federal and
state court--Lowell was the only Massachusetts city besides Boston
to pursue federal drug charges regularly--Davis's team sent dozens
of drug kingpins away for long sentences.
But getting tough failed to reduce crime. "We would put out 30
people on the sidewalk in plain clothes to make drug buys, and
people would drive by and see how disorderly everything was and get
scared," says Davis. "We weren't doing any good; the problem got a
little worse every year." Davis also observed that persistent
disorder itself could cause crime. Reading scholars like George
Kelling and Mary Ann Wycoff, he decided that effective police
departments needed to attack crime before it became serious. So he
decided to innovate.
Despite giving lip service to so-called "proactive" policing,
most of America's law enforcement departments still cling to a
model that assumes police can do little to reduce crime, and so
must focus on responding to emergency calls quickly and making lots
of arrests. When serious problems like carjacking and narcotics
trafficking emerge, departments move their best officers onto ad
hoc teams. Neighborhood patrol gets de-emphasized, although it
still employs the largest number of officers. Crackdowns on
quality-of-life offensives like graffiti, aggressive panhandling,
and small-time narcotics sales take a back seat to efforts against
"serious" crimes. To prevent corruption, police officers receive
little formal encouragement to take part in the communities they
patrol. Following this pattern, arrests-per-officer, offense
"clearance" rates, narcotics seizures, and response times can all
move in the "right" direction, even as crime rates track an upward
While it operated in this common fashion, Lowell's police force
kept its doors closed to the community. "Some officer would want to
tell me something, and I would do everything I could to get to know
him, but if he did, it would be a risk to his career," says Patrick
Cook, who covered the police department for the Lowell Sun through
most of the 1980s. "Writing even a positive story was like pulling
teeth." Department commanders often threw Cook out of police
Cook, who covered Davis's vice-squad exploits during the 1980s
and early 1990s for the newspaper, later joined the department. As
Davis's communications chief, he has opened up the force on an
unprecedented scale; even strategy meetings sometimes include
members of the public. And the flow of observers runs both ways:
Just about every major community meeting draws a few police
"The first time we showed up they might have been a little
suspicious. But then it gets to the point where we get to know
people and it really helps," says Christine Cole, the department's
community liaison and one of Davis's closest advisors. "The first
year we participated in [a yearly Cambodian Water Festival] they
called us right before and we did the best we could. Now we're at
the table at just about every step of the planning process."
Cambodians--who make up 25 to 30 percent of Lowell's
population--started arriving in large numbers in the 1980s.
"We came from a place where the police and government were
oppressive, and nobody wanted anything to do with the police," says
Sam Khann Khoen, executive director of the Cambodian Mutual
Assistance Association. But in recent years Khoen has seen an
enormous improvement in nearly every area of police-community
A few sore spots remain. Despite vigorous recruiting efforts,
for instance, Lowell has only six Khmer-speaking police officers.
The department does its best: Lowell officers carry bilingual
business cards, and forms come in both Khmer and English. "The
police leadership is really committed to working with us," Khoen
Media relations have also improved. As the department changed
the way it did business, a stream of crime problems and police
corruption scandals gave way to pictures of police officers playing
basketball with children. The department remains open about bad
news: One top administrator interrupted an interview with me to
update a reporter on an officer's recent suspension. "We can't
expect them to write the good stuff if we aren't honest with them
about something we might not be proud of," explains Cook.
Positive feelings about the department run so strong that the
business community recently pitched in to buy $200,000 worth of
police equipment the city couldn't pay for. In the early 1990s, by
contrast, downtown merchants came within weeks of hiring a private
security firm to supplement the ineffective police force.
In the city's neighborhoods, the police have entirely changed
their image. In Back Central, a working-class enclave near Lowell's
downtown, a modest renaissance has begun as crime rates have
declined. Residents have brightened streetscapes, transformed
vacant lots into much-needed parking space, and begun working on a
wide spectrum of new activities for youth. "We had a tremendous
amount of street activity in drugs and prostitution, and those were
major contributors to the serious decline of the neighborhood,"
says community leader Barbra Palermo. "The police presence--having
people on the street every day, and having them know the
community--let us come together as a neighborhood and do something
about our problems."
Three major departmental reorganizations have transpired since
Davis took the reins. Much of the new flexibility and effectiveness
of the police stems from the Chief s ability to remold his force.
The department had about 160 sworn officers when Davis took over;
it now employs about 260, and thanks to early retirement packages
and normal attrition, well over half of the force has joined since
Nearly all these new hires went through a training program in
Lowell's new police academy. The curriculum, which Lowell's
commanders developed, dropped technical topics like investigation
and fingerprinting in favor of increased emphasis on community
policing, physical fitness, and constitutional law. "It's still a
tactical orientation. We want to make sure the people we train know
how to fight crime," says Ken Lavalee, the Deputy Superintendent
who has led many of the department's reform efforts. "An officer
doesn't have to know how to run some obscure piece of equipment
that he's probably never going to see anyway. But he should know
how to take good care of himself and watch out for the
Police departments in the Lowell suburbs of Chelmsford and
Methuen are sending many officers to Lowell's academy and imitating
some of the city's organizational reforms. They have seen
reductions in crime nearly as large as Lowell's--particularly
impressive given that they already had much lower crime rates.
Lowell's crime reductions have not been achieved by simply pushing
illegal activity into some other area. Crime rates have fallen in
nearly every nearby town. "The academy is fantastic," says Methuen
Police Chief Bruce MacDougall. "The people we're getting out of
there are really putting a new face on the force. These newer
officers are just a lot more willing to take their gloves off and
work with people."
Another way Lowell brought its force closer to the community was
by chopping the department into three nearly autonomous sections.
"It's almost like I'm the police chief of my own little city," says
Robert DeMoura, one sector commander. "I've got to take care of
things quickly." Like two other commanders, DeMoura has his own
storefront precincts, patrol officers, and even detectives. Nearly
all of these officers interact with the community on a regular
basis by doing everything from coaching sports teams to helping
with battered women's shelters. Unlike other departments, where
walking and bicycle patrols have served to build corps of "officer
friendlies" (who sometimes don't even make arrests for fear of
harming community relations), Lowell sends nearly every officer to
take emergency calls.
Like most departments, Lowell experimented with special teams of
community police officers who rarely handled radio calls, focusing
instead on solving community problems and building relationships
with citizens' groups. At one point 46 percent of the force--a
majority of officers assigned to street duty--worked as community
police officers. On paper, the results looked good: Crime dropped
quickly as more officers moved into storefront precincts. A Harvard
University-Urban Institute study raved.
Internally, however, the massive shift threatened to destroy the
department. "You can't have officers smiling and handing out
Popsicles when there's a crack house next door," says Davis.
"Everyone has to answer calls, and now everyone does." Today,
except for a few detectives investigating major crimes, a small
administrative staff, and a tiny vice squad--Davis says he needs it
as a liaison to other police departments--just about all of
Lowell's officers serve as patrolmen, sector-assigned detectives,
or patrol supervisors. Administrative functions like answering
telephones and keeping crime statistics are now assigned to
civilians. Police officers need to interact with the public if they
hope to rise in the department.
As a result, Lowell puts vastly more officers on the street. In
most cities, padlocking a drug house takes several weeks of work
and often requires neighborhood officers to call in a special
squad. In Lowell it often happens the same day police receive a
complaint from neighbors. While I was visiting, DeMoura cut a
conversation short to meet with a sergeant in a grocery store
parking lot. "I want something done about the house on [street]
today. They're selling all sorts of stuff out of there," he told
his subordinate. "We got a complaint from the neighbors, and we
need to show them action." Later that day, officers moved in on the
suspected drug house. "If you put everyone on special teams, then
you can never have enough people," says Davis. "Every department in
the country says that patrol is their backbone. But then, whenever
there's a problem, they go against that. The chief will pick up the
phone and call some special unit."
The heavy patrol orientation doesn't only help with big
problems; putting more officers on walking beats has also reduced
small disorders. Much to the chagrin of radical civil libertarians,
Lowell's new community police officers have cracked down on the
little offenses that create an environment where criminals
figure--correctly--anything goes. "There's still a lot of progress
to be made in making sure we really treat disorder seriously,"
admits Davis. Still, the department has persuaded officers to
perform many unglamorous, order-maintenance tasks. A traffic
offense crackdown last spring, for example, yielded a 10 percent
reduction in accidents, even though patrol officers groused about
having to write so many tickets. In other departments, resistance
from the rank-and-file might have led to a backing off.
One way of mitigating the tension that often comes from a
toughening stance on petty disorders is to have officers walk
beats. In Lowell, foot patrols have proven popular with residents
and officers alike. Advocates for the poor love them. "Having an
officer walking by gives us a different take on things," says Mark
Cote, director of the Middlesex Street Shelter downtown. "We had
the normal problems with stealing and break-ins, but the real
problem was the prostitutes and the drug dealers just hanging out
across the street. When they put an officer on a beat here, it made
a big difference."
The Lowell Police Department has a better command of local crime
statistics than just about any other department in the country.
Like New York City, Lowell holds bi-weekly Compstat (COMPare
STATistics) meetings where police brass question sector commanders
on problems and flare-ups. While many cities using Compstat only
call meetings when a particular sector needs attention, Lowell's
commanders all have to present their statistics every two weeks.
They can expect a barrage of questions about any increases in
Lowell's version of Compstat improves other efforts by including
statistics on offenders as well as crimes. At Compstat meetings,
Gary McGee, the chief probation officer, offers more questions and
comments than anyone except Davis himself. "We've taken the whole
thing to a new level," says McGee. "If there's a kid who is having
trouble, the police know that I'm going to be visiting his house. I
can go to a house with a policeman and really enforce the curfew;
it's a system that actually works. And they know that we know where
Despite its solid record of innovation, the Lowell Police
Department still fights a few bugbears. Morale amongst
rank-and-file officers has suffered ever since six officers,
including the then union president, faced disciplinary action for
allegedly sexually harassing a colleague during a union-sponsored
bus trip. Although department brass rave about the efficiency gains
from moving officers from the headquarters to the street, the
department's increased civilian administration bothers some
While other cities have a lot to learn from Lowell, the city's
amazing crime reductions happened partly because the department
entered the Davis era with insufficient resources. The department
had a ratio of about 1.5 officers per 1,000 citizens when Davis
took over, one of the lowest in any sizeable city east of the
Mississippi. With the help initially of federal and state grants,
Davis managed to increase the department to a normal East Coast
ratio of a little more than 2.5 officers per 1,000 citizens.
Civilian employment has also swelled. Lowell's success, however,
does not stem from exceptional resources. "We couldn't have done it
without serious reforms," says Davis.
Today, the city has no problem funding increased policing out of
its own tax revenues, because falling crime rates have helped usher
in an 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, commerce
took off. For the first time in a generation, builders are putting
up market-rate housing in Lowell's once-desolate downtown.
Meanwhile, a large office complex that sold for $525,000 in 1993
fetched more than $100 million in 1998.
Chief Davis still has a long list of unmet goals, and he's still
striving to make Lowell America's safest city. He's mum about
whether he'd consider moving to a bigger department. "If I did," he
says, "it would have to be a department that's in crisis. If you
don't have that, it's really hard to create change."
With police departments in cities like New York and Los Angeles
suddenly facing public hostility even amidst falling crime rates,
someone may want to call Lowell.
Eli Lehrer is visiting fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally published in American Enterprise
The Police Behind America's Biggest Crime Drop
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