Lawrence, Mass.: City of the Damned
Crime is soaring, schools are failing, government has lost control, and Lawrence, the most godforsaken place in Massachusetts, has never been in worse shape. And here’s the really bad news: it’s up to controversial Mayor William Lantigua to turn it all around.
But they aren’t able to. Lawrence’s budget crunch has all but gutted the city’s law enforcement. In fiscal year 2011, Lantigua cut the police department from 151 officers to 110. (Staffing levels have subsequently risen to 118 officers through grant funding, according to police chief John Romero.) After the reductions, felony crimes — including murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, arson, larceny, and auto theft — rose 23 percent from the previous year, Romero says.
The Lawrence Police Department’s “special operations” units have been especially hard hit by the cuts. The street narcotics unit, consisting of seven experienced plainclothes officers, was shut down by Lantigua (who declined to comment for this story) on July 1, 2010, along with five other special units that focused on gangs, burglaries, auto theft and insurance fraud, domestic violence, and community policing.
From July 1 to December 31, 2009, when the special ops units were fully staffed with a total of 35 cops, there were 990 felonies committed in Lawrence. During the same period a year later, after the cuts, that number rose to 1,410.
“Drugs fuel most of the crime in the city,” says Romero, who was a New York City cop for 30 years before becoming Lawrence’s chief in 1999. He says that, on the one hand, he can understand the staff cuts. “I get it — there was no money. But I told the [city] council, you need to understand what’s going to happen.”
One of the task-force agents from the drug buy says the cuts have been devastating. “We’ve had 24 murders in the last 30 months,” he says. “I’d say 80 percent of those are drug-related. Taking away special operations has set the city back 15 or 20 years.”
Orlando Rosario drives a tow truck through the streets of Lawrence. A stout Latino Falstaff with a permanent 5 o’clock shadow, Rosario has been working for Sheehan’s Towing for more than a decade and knows every shopkeeper, cop, and crackhead in the city. Driving along, he points to where an expensive SUV has been left running at the curb — an incongruous sight in this neighborhood filled with junk cars and taxis.
“Watch,” he says. “That’s a drug house.”
As we cruise by, an attractive fortyish blonde walks briskly outside and slams herself into the driver’s seat. She has something in her hand and stares down lovingly at it. In the passenger seat is a young boy who’d been left alone in the car.
Rosario points out one drug house after another. Passing a fast-food restaurant at the intersection of Essex Street and Broadway, he says, “Here’s where all the crackheads and prostitutes go in the morning. You’ll see ’em here every day between 7 and 9. It’s like their office.”
Broadway is thick with traffic between Essex and Lowell streets. A short while later, a guy pulls up alongside, calling out in Spanish to Rosario.
“He’s a teacher,” Rosario says. “Bigtime drug dealer.”