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Fitchburg's gang problem grows

Officials seeking community effort

FITCHBURG -- Police blame a recent shooting that wounded three men on retaliation for a gang-related slaying last month in this central Massachusetts town of 39,000.

No one has been arrested in connection with either incident, and Police Chief Edward Cronin said he is concerned about what he called a troubling spike in violence. Adding to the pressure, he said, is the formation of a new chapter of the Latin Kings in town, along with another gang-type group known as the Family Plan.

Cronin said his department is contending with the problem with less money and fewer officers. The department received $525,000 in federal funds to combat gang and drug violence in 1994; after steady declines in funding, federal support has fallen to $28,000 this year, Cronin said. Meanwhile, the department has gone from 93 to 82 officers, he said.

Fitchburg police are working with the State Police Gang Unit on an increase in crime in the Green Street Park area and have added patrols near Fitchburg State College. There is a group of specially trained officers who work on prevention of gang involvement, but it has not translated into immediate success.

"We have to look to sitting down and talking to all the affected parties and seeing how we can combat this," said Mayor Dan Mylott. "We have to do everything we can to dissipate their influence among the kids in the city."

Recently, local groups formed a coalition modeled after the faith-based Ten Point Coalition founded in Boston. This faith-based program organizes clergy, law enforcement, and community groups to work against violence among youths.

"We are hoping this will lead to a safer community like what the coalition has done in Dorchester," said Cronin. "We need to address these issues from all ends in order to keep these neighborhoods safe."

Cronin said he is troubled by a loss in funding for antiviolence initiatives in favor of homeland security. Cronin said he is concerned that if left unchecked, Fitchburg's gang problem could return to its previous peak in the early 1990s.

"How can we have this much homeland security if we don't have enough officers on the streets?" Cronin said. "It's a very misdirected effort."

The Bush administration, he said, "has basically abandoned funding for local policing," said Cronin. "We are living on the residuals of the '90s now and it's not going to last."

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