The Police Behind America's Biggest Crime Drop

COMMENTARY Crime and Justice

The Police Behind America's Biggest Crime Drop

Mar 1st, 2001 10 min read

Since Edward F. Davis III took the reins of its police department six years ago, crime in Lowell, Massachusetts, has fallen by well over 50 percent, Between 1994 and '99, Lowell reduced crime more quickly than any other American city with over 100,000 residents.

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 course.

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 headquarters.

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 officers.

"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 relations.

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 says.

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 the mid-1990s.

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 community."

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 crime.

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 they live."

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 officers.

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