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Homicides reduced to zero in Lawrence

Community policing cited

LAWRENCE -- Rafael Castro had just returned from Logan Airport to his sixth-floor apartment when intruders looking for drugs grabbed the 36-year-old man, bound him with duct tape, and shot him in the head. The August 2004 slaying was the fourth of the year in a working-class city whose toughness and poverty rival those in some of Boston's roughest neighborhoods.

Since then, Lawrence hasn't recorded a single homicide. In fact, 2005 was the first year since 1972 that the city went without a homicide. Police cannot recall, at 18 months and counting, a longer period without a slaying.

During that same period, Boston has seen its homicide rate soar to its highest level in a decade.

Lawrence officials are reluctant to compare their city with Boston. In trying to explain the trend, officials point to a strategy used in big cities nationwide: aggressive community policing, which they say is particularly effective in compact cities such as Lawrence. At a time when Boston has seen a reluctance by some witnesses to cooperate with authorities, Lawrence has seen an uptick in such cooperation, partially prompted by the high-profile shooting of a high school basketball star and the death of a woman in an out-of-control auto insurance fraud scheme.

Another factor: luck. ''A lot of luck," acknowledges Police Chief John J. Romero.

Crime-fighting tools that have worked in Lawrence have been online warrants and photos accompanying restraining orders, said April Pattavina, assistant professor of criminal justice at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. The online warrants, which Romero put in place after taking over the Police Department in 1998, can be easily accessed by police with computers in their cruisers. Boston police can also access online warrants from computer terminals in their cars, said Elaine Driscoll, a police spokeswoman.

Romero, a Bronx native, has focused on gaining community support.

''I go to all the community meetings in the city," Romero said. ''My officers go as well. I think that trust is there. People see us, and they see that there are results."

The year he took over, the city, one of the poorest in the Commonwealth, had eight homicides among nearly 4,000 reported crimes. That overall crime figure dropped to about 1,700 in 2004, and that includes steady declines in auto theft, aggravated assault, burglary, and felony larceny, according to the police and the FBI's annual report on crime.

Soon after becoming chief, Romero created a domestic violence unit and expanded the department's antigang efforts. In this majority Latino city of 72,000, Romero also recruited more bilingual officers, many of whom attended community meetings to try to gain the trust of residents.

Romero said that besides fighting domestic violence, he also had to focus on drugs and gangs. ''Those are the three things, I think, [that] contribute to homicides," he said.

On gangs, the department created an expansive database on known members. That way, said Romero, if a gang member survives an attack, the department has information on the person's past.

That's important, Romero said, because most people involved in gang violence previously had refused to give police any information.

Boston has similar data through the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, but has struggled to coax more help from witnesses.

Last year, Boston's homicide toll jumped by 17 percent to 75, the sixth-highest percentage increase among 15 cities nationwide with comparable populations, according to a Globe survey.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston blamed the increase on higher numbers of young males in the city, and the simultaneous decline in federal and state assistance. Menino pressured a Dorchester clothing store to stop selling ''Stop Snitching" T-shirts, a reference to popular slogan that the mayor believed thwarted cooperation with police.

Using the gang database, Lawrence police can track who has a beef with whom, what type of cars gang members drive, even which gang members are dating, Romero said.

With those measures in place, Romero said he knew the homicide rate would fall. But down to zero? ''Yeah, there some luck involved with that," he said.

It is hard to overstate the impact of two high-profile criminal cases in helping Romero's efforts to crack down.

In September 2003, Altegracia Arias, 64, was killed in what police said was a staged car collision. According to investigators, Arias had solicited friends at Lawrence Senior Center to buy seats in the two cars, allowing them to report injuries and sue their insurance companies for amounts averaging between $2,000 and $3,000. Two drivers in the accident were charged with manslaughter in Arias's death.

Arias's death prompted enforcement that led to more than 100 arrests in fake auto insurance claims in Lawrence.

''There's no question that her death sparked more community participation [to fight] insurance fraud," Romero said. ''The public just said, 'enough is enough.' "

In March 2005, Lawrence High School basketball standout Hector Paniagua, 18, was hit in the neck by a stray bullet outside a local night club. The wound paralyzed Paniagua from the chest down. The shooting provoked calls for more patrols around night clubs and for stricter regulation of businesses that serve alcohol and cater to teens.

''He was not involved in the shooting, outside of being a victim," Romero said. ''I think after that shooting, people realized that police can't do it alone."

Following those two crimes, said Romero, residents started giving police more tips about criminal activity before and after crimes occurred.

Romero admitted that his 161-member force benefits from the compact size of the city, just six square miles. Jack Levin, director of Northeastern University's Brudnick Center on Violence, agreed that Lawrence's size helps its community policing efforts.

''The smaller the city, the bigger the impact," he said. Levin also said the high percentage of immigrants in Lawrence helps, too. ''Most people believe that immigrants lead to higher crime rates," Levin said, ''but just the opposite is true."

State Representative William ''Willy" Lantigua said the lack of homicides is a sign that Lawrence is turning around.

''A lot more people have taken ownership of the city," Lantigua said, citing a rise in home ownership. ''And when they take ownership, they fight collectively, not only with law enforcement, but with neighborhood associations."

Isabel Melendez, a longtime community activist and radio personality, credits the police with interacting with the community more. Coincidentally, Melendez was watching television two floors below the apartment where Castro was fatally shot in Lawrence's last homicide. Joonel Garcia, 20, has been arrested and indicted on first-degree murder charges in that case.

Melendez said Lawrence residents are starting to feel safer now.

''The people at the top, like the chief and the staff around, they're really doing their jobs for the first time," she said. ''Things are changing for the best."

Suzanne Smalley contributed to this report. Contreras can be reached at rcontreras@globe.com.

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