Short Handed and Under Siege
Cops Get Little Support At City Hall
By: Tom Duggan – August, 2011
It was a busy Saturday night in Lawrence as the men of the Lawrence Police Force were once again under siege and short handed as they tried to bring order to a city plagued with violence and crime.
Dozens of 911 calls flooded police dispatchers on the early night shift of Saturday, July 30th, and from the minute they went on duty at 5pm, (until long after their shift ended at 1am) the cops in Lawrence had no break in the action.
Patrolling the mill city of about 80,000 people that night were seven police officers who had to answer calls for help in the sweltering head of summer. It was a night where tensions ran high in city neighborhoods and loud parties with drunken partygoers kept the men in blue very busy.
“We have 7 guys on tonight,” one police officer told the Valley Patriot. “It’s only 9:30 and the calls are backing up faster than we can respond to them. It’s not good. It’s not good at all. We’ve been doing this since last year and I’m surprised that none of us have been seriously hurt.” The officer asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from the Lantigua administration.
On this night, the seven Lawrence police officers assigned to serve and protect the people of Lawrence were riding in one man cars. They raced from one end of the city to another, answering cries for help from women being beaten in domestic disputes, noise complaints, responding to calls for medical assistance, car accidents and the usual quality of life complaints that come with patrolling any big urban area.
“The problem isn’t the nature of the calls, it’s the volume. When it’s like this and something serious happens it ties up at least four or five cars leaving only two or three cars to handle everything else. It’s not safe for us and it’s not safe for civilians. When our response time slows more people get hurt, that’s just the way it is.”
And it wasn’t long before the serious calls began to come in.
“Shots fired, Broadway” the call went out over the police radio, sending all available patrol cars to the VIP lounge on Broadway. The VIP is a troubled night club owned by Lawrence City Councilor Onaida Aquino and was the scene of the famous Cotnoir shooting a few years ago, as well as the scene of many stabbings and shootings in the past year.
As each available car rushed to the scene of the shooting, more calls came into the station’s 911 dispatch center. “You are looking for a red motorcycle, metal plates…” the dispatcher warned the responding officers as he apologized to other officers for sending them out of their sector to answer other calls.
“I’m sorry to have to do this to you, but I have nobody clear on the north side” the dispatcher apologized as he sent a car from the area of the Veterans Stadium in South Lawrence to the opposite corner of the city for a domestic dispute where the caller said he had been assaulted by her boyfriend and wanted him removed from the property.
Within minutes, more cries for help, “We’re getting backed up in here, we have calls hanging” the dispatcher pleaded over the police radio.
Not long after the gun call was dispatched, Lawrence police were sent rallying to Lawrence Street where a man who had purchased beer at a liquor store had been attacked with a machete. The victim called the station on his way to the hospital and the attackers were long gone. Still, Lawrence police rushed to Lawrence Street to see if they could find witnesses who could give them a description of the attackers and search for evidence.
While uniformed officers rushed to the scene, detectives rushed to Lawrence General Hospital where the victim was being treated for a large gash on his head and arms. “We’re never gonna find these guys, we can barely keep up with the calls how are we supposed to find these guys?” one officer asked discouragingly.
While some officers were still trying to piece together the details of the machete attack and track down the shooter from the Broadway incident, other officers continue responding to lesser important calls, one after another as more calls came in.
“We have a home invasion at (street # withheld) Saunders Street,” the dispatcher said over the radio. He told his officers that it was still in progress and he had one of the occupants on the phone.
“Caller states they showed a gun and were pushed out the door, they just left” the dispatcher warned. With cops heading in that direction and the gunmen heading away from the house there was a chance that they may run into each other which could be deadly. When officers arrived there was no sign of the home invaders but the victims had video tape of the men with guns trying to enter their home.
“Suspects meeting the description are walking down Avon Street,” the dispatcher said. Within less than a minute, four, one-man cruisers pulled up and questioned two men who fit the description, but after a few minutes determined they were not the suspects and let them go.
As the calls backed up, officers were inundated with complaints about response time, crime victims pleading for help and asking when an officer could respond to their emergency.
While officers were able to make several arrests on a myriad of charges that night, none of the suspects in the major criminal cases they dealt with that night were taken into custody.
“All this means”, one of the early night officers said as he was ending his shift, “is that the people we didn’t catch tonight are still out on the streets and we will be dealing with them again. Tonight, tomorrow night, the night after. The criminals know we are short handed. Short handed and outnumbered and it doesn’t seem like we are getting much support from City Hall.
“We have calls backed up about 30-45 minutes” one officer said as he started his shift on midnight patrol. As the seven cops working early nights were going home at 1AM, they were being replaced with six officers to handle the emergency calls.
“We have six guys on right now and we can’t even get to the calls coming in because we have a full board at the station from the early nights,” one frustrated officer lamented.
Little Support from City Leaders
Last year Lawrence Mayor Willie Lantigua and a majority of the Lawrence City Council laid off 25 police officers, disbanded the auto theft task force, depleted the detectives division and the drug task force and have attacked the cops calling them lazy and racist. This was after borrowing $35 million dollars to balance the budget
One city councilor who did not support the budget that laid off 25 police officers (and 24 firefighters) was Marc LaPlante.
“These guys do an amazing job given the restraints they have foisted upon them,” he said. “They are working short handed every night. They are working with outdated equipment that is in serious disrepair, cruisers that need major work and I have to say, after doing a few of these ride-alongs with police, that I don’t know how they do it.”
“I have to say they are real professionals,” LaPlante said. “If you look at the volume of calls they are handling and the serious nature of, really the serious danger of the issues they are faced with, it’s amazing to me that they are able to go out there and operate so professionally under these conditions. Eventually something’s got to break.”
On top of being short handed on the streets, officers tell the Valley Patriot that currently there is no one in the department assigned to do fingerprint analysis. That means when major crimes happen in the city, detectives are not taking nor are they processing fingerprints leaving many cases unsolved.
“We have at least two officers certified to do fingerprint analysis but with the cuts Lantigua made neither of those officers are doing it because they have both been reassigned,” one official said.
With the explosion of crime and violence in the city, sources at the state police say that they have a backlog of cases that they have done for Lawrence that are just “sitting here waiting to be picked up.”
Sources in Lawrence say that because they have no one to pick up or process those files, serious cases like rape and murder are not being worked on.
Lawrence resident Lee Fickenworth told the Valley Patriot last month that there is a lot of evidence in the case of her murdered son Gabriel “but there’s nobody working on it. It’s frustrating, someone murdered my son and there aren’t any police officers working the case.”
Last month the Mayor and the Lawrence City Council approved a new budget plan for 2011 –2012, which did not restore any of the 25 police positions eliminated last year nor the 11 officers laid off in previous years.
According to Lawrence Police Chief John Romero the Lawrence Police Department is short 41 officers in total leaving not only a backlog of cases for patrol cars on each shift but also in solving prior cases.