“What do you want in a police chief?” asks the City Manager

Lowell Police Department and monument

Lowell Police Department. Visit their site at http://www.lowellpolice.com

Last Thursday, City Manager Lynch, CFO Tom Moses, Solicitor Christine O’Conner, HR Director Mary Callery, and Executive Assistant Lynda Clark held the public listening session to discuss attributes the public desires in a new Police Superintendent. Unfortunately, this session competed with both the first of the three Sun Candidate Forums and a Red Sox World Series game–something the City Manager apologized for. It perhaps contributed to the slim turnout of about half a dozen. This meant Aurora and I composed a third of the focus group! A streetworker from UTEC, a reporter from the Sun, a fellow from the Senior Center actually just there to get photos, and a long-term resident rounded out the group. I’ll try to summarize what was discussed, but I’m largely working from memory.

This did mean everyone got plenty of time to speak. It might not be a surprise that everyone there desired a focus on community policing: reopening of closed precinct offices, police on foot, and events to build trust between police and residents. On the topic of trust-building, I asked if Lowell had any type of Citizen Oversight Committee, an outside, elected lay committee that works with the police to investigate complaints (click here for a report on these type of committees). This isn’t to suggest LPD needs such a committee, but I feel openness to ideas such as this is important for a police chief wishing to build trust with a community. Mr. Moses apparently used to work for Cambridge, so is familiar with their Police Review & Advisory Board. This idea might have some traction: later, I realized Candidate Van Pech is proposing a Human Rights Commission that would work toward many of the same goals, and Mr. Lynch was aware of the conversation. I’d like to note that such boards do take dedicated volunteer hours and City staff support, which are both finite resources.

Stories were used to illustrate points: One of the attendees relayed a story of lingering around the scene of a routine car stop for quite some time afterward, seemingly only talking to one another. Although generally trusting that police are doing their best, this made her question that belief. The UTEC streetworker discussed the distrust of police from those he works with. We brought up the question of diversity and number of women in the force, and another added on the importance of understanding cultural differences, something of which Mr. Lynch seemed keenly aware. During these stories, all five from the City took careful notes.

Another important point discussed was continuing to break the divisions between urban planning, education, code enforcement, and policing. Surprisingly, although I’m an urban planner, it wasn’t I who brought it up! One of the residents believed designing streets for lower speeds would encourage slower driving and free up police for tasks other than traffic control. He also mentioned the importance of broken-window theory: that repairing and cleaning areas after vandalism keep neighborhoods from spiraling into more serious crimes. There’s debate whether this is actually true (I don’t normally link to Wikipedia, but this is a good review of studies about it), but a 2005 study that took place in Lowell found “cleaned up” areas had a 20% reduction in calls to police compared to the “control” group. The results were discussed back in 2009. The City Manager said the City was very familiar with the strategy. I’ve heard their anti-vandalism unit responds quickly to complaints (SeeClickFix was released to assist residents register complaints in 2012).

The group from the City was asked what groups at other stakeholder-specific sessions discussed, but largely it was the same things we did. The City mentioned the business community said they knew Lowell is safe for visitors, but wanted a visible police force to make them feel safe. One interesting question that was brought up was whether it was more important to bring an outside perspective or an intimate knowledge of Lowell. The City staff reported the search was much more complex than he anticipated, but wanted to do it right, because the choice would affect the City for decades to come.

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