Will the Election Change Lowell’s Police Policy?

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Post Election Community Dialogue, the latest in a series of open events the police force has held to try to clarify their own values and policy, while taking input from citizens about what their experiences and concerns are. This one focused on the “Post Election Environment” in which, politics aside, I think we can all agree a lot of people are feeling afraid and that evidence shows that hate crimes seem to be spiking.

Dialogue about community police lowell ma

Captain Taylor at the dialogue. (Image courtesy Lowell PD’s Facebook)

Chief William Taylor, dressed in a suit and Christmas tie, started things off by introducing the officers in the room, as well as a representative from the FBI and State’s Attorney’s office. Then he read a prepared statement, clarifying the LPD’s policy on immigration status. In essence: regardless of your immigration status, the police want you to feel comfortable reporting a crime, calling emergency services, or asking for help. They say they don’t routinely run immigration checks in any of those cases. However, when they arrest someone, they do run a check, and it’s likely that problems would come up there.

The police in Lowell do collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when ICE reaches out to them, but they don’t routinely reach out to them to try to remove otherwise law-abiding members of the community. Other cities, including Lawrence, have passed a “Trust Act” which limits their collaboration with ICE. Efforts like this are one of the things people are describing when they talk about becoming a “Sanctuary City” which actively tries to protect people living there from federal government deportation.

Right out of the gate, the first question was about this possibility, and it came up several more times. The question was raised by a representative from the emerging group Solidarity Lowell. Chief Taylor had clearly anticipated this question, and he explained that, as far as he’s concerned, that’s a question for the City Council. He did go on to say that, though he had no strong opinion about it, he thought that the current system works well and didn’t really see further steps as necessary.

A representative from the International Institute asked for clarification about access to interpreters. If someone is being interviewed by the police, they do have the right to be interviewed in their own language. If someone calls in needing help from the police, it’s challenging in Lowell to cover all languages, but they have access to resources. Another representative, following up on that, suggested more translation at community meetings.

Additional questions along these lines clarified that they just hired their first Arabic speaking officer. They also try hard to do outreach to new groups, including building a good relationship with the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell. Working to make sure new Lowellians know their rights is a priority, as is avoiding discrimination and implicit bias at work in the actions of officers. The newly reformed Race Relations Council, a citizen advisory group made up of diverse community members is a step in the right direction that helps make sure that the Police force is hearing from everyone.

Next to come up is another issue on everybody’s mind: hate crimes. Captain Kelly said they haven’t really had any clear incidents reported to them. The rep from the International Institute said that she’s heard two reports of women having someone pull at their hijabs to try to remove them. For myself, I’ve heard about two separate incidents of Latino kids at school being taunted with the threat of being deported. The Attorney’s Office rep reminded people that these things can be judgement calls, but encouraged people not to hesitate to report them. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to try to figure out if something is a crime, the experts can do that. And if you hadn’t heard, in Massachusetts we have a newly created hotline to report harassment and intimidation.

Young CMAA Professionals

Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Young Professionals after a community dialogue. (Image courtesy Sovanna Pouv/CMAA)

A kid from Teen Block suggested that police officers need to work harder to make community members feel comfortable. He mentioned that officers meeting with kids at Teen Block is a step in the right direction. One of the officers who’s been working with youth quite a bit, especially on Dance for Peace, talked about how fun and rewarding that has been. Another representative of Teen Block talked about trying to make kids feel more comfortable with officers, especially those stationed at schools. Captain Taylor agreed, and said that officers at schools are meant to help people feel safe. Captain Kelly talked about a time when that’s worked well, when a teenager texting with a friend wrapped up in a dangerous trafficking situation approached the school officer to share her concerns about her friend.

There was an intense discussion around the issue of scammers posing as police or other officials targeting the immigrant population. This can be confusing even for people familiar with the way things work in the US, but for people who may come from countries where a certain level of bribery and corruption is normal, it can be especially confusing. To clarify, no government official should ever ask you for money or your social security number over the phone. It’s always okay, if you get a call, to ask to call back the official office to make sure you’re talking to someone legitimate. Sometimes these scammers can also come to the door, so it’s okay to ask to see a badge and credentials. Chief Taylor said that our neighbors are the best protection we have, and that we should all try to keep an eye out for our elderly and recent immigrant neighbors. I think you’ll be hearing more about this issue from the department soon.


Body camera similar to ones being tested in Boston (WBUR).

I asked about something I’ve been wondering about: whether they were still considering any measures to increase accountability, like body cameras or a civilian review board. The thoughtful response on body cameras was essentially “no, but we might pick this issue up again in the future”. Reasons cited included expense and legal concerns. In Massachusetts, the police aren’t allowed to record you without your permission, so this makes the cameras a logistical problem. Additionally, there are concerns that people won’t want to talk to the police if they fear being recorded. Chief Taylor did acknowledge that other cities, including Boston, are trying it, and that because of the increasing number of security cameras and cell phones, “that’s probably the way that things are going”.

A civilian review board hasn’t been discussed much, but Taylor said that the review process we have for police incidents works. I asked a follow-up to clarify whether it’s legal to film the police, and Captain Taylor said, “absolutely”. In fact, they said they seldom arrest somebody these days without someone filming it.

Many people expressed concerns about the current political climate, and the refrain from the police was along the lines of, “nothing in Lowell is going to change on January 21st”. A pointed question from a person who felt less safe because so many police unions had endorsed Trump got a candid answer from Kelly: “I can understand why some officers sided with Trump, while I hope they didn’t agree with everything he said.” He explained that attacks on officers are way up, many of them feel less safe and their families are worried about us coming home at night. Additionally, he said that he’s seeing some evidence that officers hesitate to use some methods now, because they “don’t want to end up on TV.” He said he tells officers that that’s good, but that it’s still their job to come home safe at night.

15355736_10209981832835749_9141968903883996996_nThe packed house for this event makes clear that the community is concerned, but also that the community is actively committed to working together. Frankly, I’ve lived in communities where not only would the police never attempt to invite community input, if they did tensions were high enough nobody would be able to have a real conversation. In Lowell, there really is a genuine effort to be open to criticism and to hearing the fears in the community.

If you have a bad experience, especially if you feel your treatment is unfair, Captain Taylor is very clear that he wants to hear about it. You can come in to the LPD’s Headquarters at 50 Arcand Drive to file a complaint in person. Or you can call the LPD’s Professional Standards Division at 978-674-4507, or you can fill out this form and mail it in. If you have a broader concern or you’d like for officers to meet with your community group or attend an event, I’d consider reaching out to Sara Kuhn, who’s the Director of Community Relations and a very warm, easy to talk to person. She’s reachable by phone at 978-674-1906 or email at Skhun@lowellma.gov.

(Featured Image courtesy Lowell PD Facebook)


Learning Lowell Anniversary Totally Terrific Top Ten Countdown

As Aurora pointed out in Learning Lowell’s anniversary post, it’s been a year since we’ve been blogging in Lowell! She talked about why she (and I) started blogging and the benefits we’ve gotten from it. I thought I would take a look back on some of our posts and a look forward on what we hope to do. I thought reflecting on our little corner of the internet would be very timely, as the Lowell Social Media Conference is coming up tomorrow, December 6.

Our blog is hosted on wordpress.com, a free (ad-supported) service with some great tools. One of those tools lets us see how many people are reading our blog and which posts get more clicks. We reached 2,000 views a month when we first started, but we’ve settled into about 1,000 views a month. This is way more than we ever thought: we figured our families might read an occasional post and that would be it! I thought it might be fun to review our top five posts, then talk about a few we wished had hit bigger.

Top Five Posts

5. An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

citymanagerposition-01-01Almost a year ago, the Lowell City Council began the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace departing Bernie Lynch. We reviewed guides made by groups such as the International City/County Managers Association, who recommended allowing 60 days for candidates to apply, and 30 days to interview candidates. During those 60 days, they recommended sending letters to qualified candidates identified knowledgeable sources inviting them to apply.

It’s interesting to compare this to the timetable the council ultimately used to solicit and screen candidates. They allowed a bit over a month for applications, and I believe they only advertised in a few publications and websites. The interviews focused quite a bit on the council’s hot topics: safety/security and economic development.

4. A Historic Preservation Story Unfolding: Bowers House, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and the City of Lowell

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Around the same time, another surprisingly controversial issue was unfolding: a proposed razing of the Jerathmell Bowers House. The issue prompted us to write a series of posts, culminating in the blog’s longest-named and fourth-most-popular post. We talked about how, in 2010, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust worked unsuccessfully to find a new owner but brought a lot of attention to the oldest house in Lowell. Then, in 2013, Kazanjian Enterprises bought the property and proposed a commercial structure to replace the house. The City of Lowell and Kaznjian worked to find a solution that retained the house and the structure.

As far as I know, this final proposal is the one moving forward, although a tenant still has not been found for the Bowers House. We suggested a themed restaurant, although I would expect that the house could service as offices for a real estate or insurance agent as well. If anyone has updates, let me know!

3. Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

Lot to Like PostcardFebruary, 2014, Councilor Belanger motioned to request that the Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force. This prompted me to do a review of all the different groups who are active in downtown planning and all the different plans created for downtown. I still hope one day to do a follow-up on each plan, as some of them are very interesting historically and others still have great suggestions we could advance.

In April, that task force was formed, including councilor Corey Belanger; Deb Belanger, Executive Director of Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; Danielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce; Jim Cook, the Executive Director of the Lowell Plan; and Adam Baacke, Director of Campus Planning at UMass Lowell. Additionally, the council formed a Downtown Redevelopment Subcommittee at the request of Councilor Kennedy, which includes himself, Councilor Leahy, and Councilor Milinazzo. I wasn’t able to find any meeting minutes for the Task Force or Subcommittee, so if anyone has any updates, let me know!

2. Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Mill #5 sign is hungI feel a bit proud that we were among the first talking about Mill No. 5, which has gained a lot of traction since last March, when we wrote about the history of the building, which was built to take advantage of Steam Power, about Jim Lichoulas III’s flexible plans that change based on feedback, and about the way Amelia Tucker recruited vendors for the monthly “Little Bazaar” marketplaces.

Since then, the Luna Theater and Coffee and Cotton have both opened, along with a number of smaller shops. Mill No. 5 has some exciting programming going on during December, including a Farm Market each Sunday, 10-2:30; Holiday Shopping Pop-Up shops every weekend; a 12/13 OtherWhere Market featuring fantasy and sci-fi goods; and the second annual Totally Bazaar tomorrow, 12/6, at noon!

1. Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, MassachusettsThe most popular post was something we had to write very quickly, as it was in response to a City Council motion we had learned only days before: removing the bicycle lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard. We showed some pictures of the lanes, looked at the goals as articulated in several city plans, and examined the design of the lanes in relation to National Association of City Transit Official (NACTO)’s comprehensive Urban Bikeway Guide. Our conclusion was that two lanes should be enough for the small amount of vehicular traffic on Father Morissette, that the bike lanes conformed to recommended design but could be improved (with more money), and that we constantly need to show our support for the plans we made together.

Councilor Mercier suggested she worded the motion in such a provocative way as to determine if there was support for the bicycle lanes and encourage cyclists to come to the meeting. The council passed an amended motion to “call for the city manager to review the configuration of the bike lanes and traffic lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard, and report back on ways to make the road safer for vehicles and cyclists.” The City’s former transportation engineer, Eric Eby, invited the community to a public meeting to discuss options, and I have heard the City finally settled on painting “Bicycles Only” in the lanes. There was discussion of forming a public Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee as well, but that has unfortunately not occurred, even as several pedestrians have been struck, with one fatality, in recent months. I hope to make a follow-up post on bicycle and pedestrian issues in Lowell in the coming weeks.

My Personal Top Five

I also wanted to highlight posts that I thought were especially important or interesting, but never got as many views as the more popular posts. I suppose this is my personal top five:

5. Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

This was a short post that Aurora and I put together, but we felt that there was so much to say about Dick Howe’s cemetery tour beyond that it’s simply fun. We wanted to suggest that all of Lowell can be like the very-popular cemetery tours. It can surprise, educate, and make us reflect on ourselves in ways other cities simply can’t. I hoped to start a conversation on how we can bring that side of Lowell forward with the same strategy Mr. Howe uses, and I still hope that conversation starts.

4. The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAWe didn’t see too many community members at the Coffee with a Cop event in October, but everyone there seemed to really have a great time. It felt as if it advanced the goal of creating community between police and residents, and we learned quite a bit behind the philosophy of the UMass Lowell Police. We were surprised that some officers were attracted to UML so that they could interact with people beyond the usual roles of “criminal” and “victim” and that officers feel that things have improved only in the last few years. We hoped to share some of those benefits with our post.

3. A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

salem3Aurora made an amazing comparison of Lowell and Salem, which attracts thousands upon thousands of tourists. She noted that Lowell had similar advantages to Salem, including roughly the same distance from Boston and a walkable core, but didn’t capitalize them in quite the same way. As the city talks about marketing, I think the suggestions in this post are a great way to think about how to package Lowell as an immersive day experience for visitors and residents alike.

2. First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Our post about Lowell’s First Thursdays wasn’t just a description of our experience at the fun summer event, it was also about how a single, key person was instrumental in bringing a great event to Lowell; about how a series of events might have to build over time; and about what goals we’re trying to meet and what audiences we’re trying to attract when we talk about “downtown revitalization.” I have thought about this post quite a bit when thinking about the own Lowell projects I’m helping organize.

1. What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

ltlcI did an extensive interview with the former director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, David McCloskey. Part 2 of that post and a follow-up about Living Waters didn’t receive the large number of views captured by Part 1. Mr. McCloskey discussed the difference between passive and aggressive panhandling, the discussions he had with former clients about panhandling, and his experience with Lowell’s cooperation with the center. Perhaps even more importantly, we discussed the problem with Massachusetts’s housing costs and how people can volunteer to help or even take political action. If I could ask everyone to read just one post, it might be this one.

What’s Ahead?

Writing this post, it makes me think of all the posts I still hope to write. We just released the first in a series about refugees, and more will be coming soon. Another series is also in the works: discussing Lowell High School’s location and the dilemma of moving or keeping it in-place. As I mentioned before, I hope to discuss traffic and transportation in Lowell: where the traffic is, how it can (or can’t) be addressed, and what is planned for Lowell. We also would like to talk about friends and family we’ve hosted and their impressions of Lowell.

We also go to a number of events and restaurants, and have a lot of photos and stories. We wonder how people like reading about them: should each event or restaurant be a very short post, should there be some sort of Lowell guide that we update each time we go out, or is there another good way to share our stories and photos? Please let us know in the comments! We try to respond to all requests as quickly as we can.

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MA

The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Last week, “Coffee with a Cop” invited the community to meet with UMass Lowell, Lowell Police Department, and National Park Service police. We took advantage of the event, spearheaded by UML, and the free coffee and pastries, provided by the University Crossing Starbucks.

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAThe remarkably informal event was a good opportunity to meet with UMass Lowell officers in particular–dozens were in attendance. We talked with many. One said it was nice to be able to talk with actual people and suggested that patrol officers often only talk to “criminals” or “victims.” The sentiment was echoed by another officer, who enjoyed the opportunity to socialize with others and often stops locally for coffee. This was the goal of the event, part of a nationwide program started in Hawthorne, California:

This informal contact increases trust in police officers as individuals which is foundation to building partnerships and engaging in community problem solving. – Coffee with Cop Website

Our longest discussion was with UML Police Chief Randolph Brashears. He believes the big story at UMass Lowell is its expansive growth, with not only more students admitted, but higher admission standards. However, the most interesting story was one of the evolving relationship between the three police departments of Lowell. Only a few years prior, in his words, there used to be a “lot of friction” between departments. In only four or so years, regular CompStat meetings improved communication and the forces have begun cooperating in new ways.

Chief Brashears mentioned that the Lowell Police Superintendent once called him late at night about a problem, and he investigated and resolved the issue that day. He gave me the impression that years ago, that phone call wouldn’t have been made and would lead to festering animosity between the two departments over what might have even been a misunderstanding.

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAAnother interesting theme came up: UMass Lowell Police have some flexibility in how they handle student-related crimes, which have led to a reduced number of repeat offenders. The Lowell Police Department will refer student-related crimes to UML Police. The UML Police can refer the offending student to student services, who are able to give an academic penalty such as suspension or expulsion that are a more powerful deterrent than a night in jail, but doesn’t give the student a criminal record that might damage their future. In addition, UML Police can and do follow up with students and neighbors the day after minor crimes such as violation of noise ordinance during a party. Several of the officers credited this kind of diligence to virtually eliminating repeat offenders.

Every officer asked us what our perception of the student population was–if they were giving us problems. We had to answer honestly that although we’re relatively near UML Inn and Conference Center, we had no student-related concerns. Chief Brashears partially credited this to the nature of UML students: many commute in, and many are first-generation students who are focused on their studies, not parties. It was an interesting perspective. For our part, we asked about whether the students felt safe in Lowell, and an officer said he believed that the students had a perception of crime in Lowell that was probably worse than the reality.

Finally, we had an interesting conversation with Chief Brashears about the issue of sexual violence on campus. There are few reported incidents, but he acknowledged that it is a crime that is usually underreported. He did mention there were many semi-anonymous ways to report on campus, including to clergy, student services, and other places, a full list available on the web here. We discussed the fine line between advocating safe behavior and victim-blaming, which could warrant a post all on its own.

Reflecting on the event, it’s notable that CompStat has proven to be a useful tool to improve interdepartmental communication. I understood CompStat as essentially collection of crime statistics, but it’s actually a process that began in 1994 in New York City and has since been adapted in many other cities, including Lowell. It involves the collection and analysis of data, but also development of strategies, rapid implementation (such as deploying additional officers to hotspots or contacting derelict property owners), and follow-up. I now believe it’s a natural place to improve cooperation, as interdepartmental strategies may be generated.

This interdepartmental communication and community outreach is terribly important. Questions about the appropriate role of university police have come up in other communities, and I wonder if the discussion and cooperation between the three police forces in Lowell have headed off controversy by assigning each force to its most appropriate role. However, we didn’t actually get a chance to talk to NPS or LPD officers at the event (although it looked like a valuable opportunity for them to communicate with each other and other community members). Hopefully we can follow up with those forces in the future!

Sun Debate: City Manager, School, and Safety

The Sun Debate was about a week ago, but I’ve just finished watching the third at http://www.lowellsun.com/todaysheadlines/ci_24385207/crime-takes-center-stage-round-1-lowell-city. I’ve seen a few folks comment on the Sun’s follow-up articles, but the videos give much more context. The same pool of questions were used in each debate, although moderators sometimes didn’t address every question or varied the phrasing. This will be the first of two parts recording the questions and our reactions. The second is here.

Moderator Chris Scott, candidates Genevieve Doyle, Stacie Hargis, Bill Martin, Joe Mendonca, Van Pech, and Dan Rourke.

Debate Round 3; from left: Moderator Chris Scott, candidates Genevieve Doyle, Stacie Hargis, Bill Martin, Joe Mendonca, Van Pech, and Dan Rourke.

The City Manager’s contract expires next august. Would you give him a new contract? If not, why not? If so, how long?

This question, submitted by Sun readers, is considered the “hot” issue of the election. From my vantage point, the audience reacted more to this question than any other. However, a lot has been written about this issue already (Sun part 1 and 2) (Left in Lowell). Notably, Mr. Millanazo brought up an argument I hadn’t heard before: a contract longer than two years makes the next council “stuck” with the decisions of the former council. There was a followup in the third group: “Where is the current manager lacking?” Mr. Pech had a long list: some neighborhoods are underserved, there are some issues with board and committee appointments, and more departments need to be restructured. Counselor Mendoca noted better interpersonal relations with counselors were necessary, something Mr. Mitchell and Counselor Nuon mentioned in an earlier debate.

We were surprised by an answer by many: Mr. Rourke, Ms. Doyle, Ms. Hargis, and Counselors Martin and Nuon all said that more communication was needed with neighborhoods, the media, and those outside Lowell to gather input and promote the City. Some admitted, “We could all do better.” However, Aurora and I had just came from a listening session with the City Manager: an example of neighborhood outreach. Not only that, but we read his blog where he advertises events and developments and hear addresses with nothing but positives about Lowell.

I strongly believe in participatory planning, and I think there could always be more and better outreach. Lowell is no exception. However, a lack of outreach isn’t the first thing I think of when I think of City Manager Lynch.

Is a new high school the most important need in the City, or do you have another priority?

This question was also from Sun readers. Some quotes were printed in this Sun article, and this is the key issue discussed on Lowell2020. Counselors Lorrey and Mercier suggested there may be neighborhood resistance to moving, something not noted in the Sun’s article. However, this was just part of their argument to do community outreach, and Counselor Mercier’s larger argument was focusing on the students and a growing drug problem, not the building. Additionally, I thought it was especially notable that Counselor Elliott implied that additional code inspectors (and police officers) was a greater priority than a new high school building.

Also not mentioned was Mr. Mitchell’s argument of “dollars and cents:” that the choice should be made on what is least expensive in the long-term and what can keep young, taxpaying families in Lowell. He wasn’t the only one to make this argument in one form or another. Another interesting sidenote was a disagreement between Counselor Leahy and others arguing about doing well by those with low incomes. He was the only one to mention competition from private schools:

“…I shouldn’t have to send [my children] to a private school because I don’t feel they aren’t getting a good education or the facilities aren’t up-to-par in the City.”

Counselor Leahy also mentioned that the City must consider quality in the building rather than just pursuing the lowest bidder, implying the lowest bidder built the problematic 1980s expansion.

The Police Superintendent is off seven months, and the department’s been running with an interim chief. Do you think this has had an effect on public safety?

This questions resonated with several members of the audience. It also split the candidates. Although almost everyone didn’t see a connection, that was the end of the agreement. Some, such as Counselors Martin and Mendoca, focused on the argument that time should be taken to find the right person. Others, such as Mr. Rourke, Mr. Elliot, Mr. Gitschier, Counselor Kennedy, or Ms. Hargis, mentioned the problems with having an interim superintendent and the need to select one quickly. The rest focused on overtime or community policing, not addressing the issue of Superintendent.

When asked what he did attribute the spikes to, Counselor Martin said, “I don’t think there’s any secret about it,” referring to drug use and weapon proliferation. Almost everyone discussed a variation on that reason, sometimes mentioning the reports of increased profit associated with Marijuana. Ms. Hargis even mentioned the need for preparation of medical marijuana legalization. I was surprised that only Ms. Doyle mentioned the other correlating crime factor: poverty and the hopelessness associated with it.

Stay tuned for the final four questions.

“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.

First Impressions: Sun Debate

The Lowell Sun hosted three debates last Thursday. They posted videos of each debate here. I haven’t seen the first one yet, so I will save everything but first impressions for a later post. The debate was at Lowell High School Six candidates and a moderator were closely packed around one side of a table draped in red. It and the Sun logo were the only splashes of color against black drapes and grey carpet. A spotlight focused on the candidates like a laser, and a couple dozen in the audience circled around them.

Tense, dramatic setting, right? However, the candidates seemed at ease, appearing to enjoy one another. The tension one often sees in the City Council chamber isn’t apparent. I thought, for the most part, it was a cordial discussion of issues rather than a heated debate. Between debates, I half-joked to one candidate that they put on a “good show,” and the candidate agreed something along the lines that “it’s all theater.” The theatrical aspect was no surprise. What surprised me about the debate is some of the chatter I heard during and after. Two things stood out:

1. The Sun posed at least a couple of, to me, strange questions. For example, moderators posed a question about a link between the lack of a permanent police superintendent and a recent spike in violent crime. (This Sun story notes the City Manager originally estimated a 4-6 month search, and it’s now been 7 months.) I would never have made this connection. Crime tends to clump in spikes or hotspots for a number of reasons, including copycatting and gang retribution (short NSF video about 2010 hotspot research in LA). The police have already mentioned a major factor in Lowell is a changing Marijuana market. On top of this, the crime rate isn’t worse than last year (the Gerry Nutter page referring to this is down). All the candidates agreed–there’s no reason to think there’s any causation, although some did imply “seven months is too long.”

Yet, during the questions I thought were strange, I heard the audience whispering, “Good question!” It is the responsibility of journalists to ask questions others don’t think of asking. However, it is also an easy tool to misuse, as journalists may plant an idea in folks’ heads without actually misstating facts or making any jumps in logic. These types of questions may also derail the conversation from important topics. Nevertheless, as the debate showed, these types of questions are also very appealing to the news audience.

2. More than one member of the audience said that the debate changed their voting plans. Aurora and I have been following the election and there were no surprises to us. Yet, perhaps this debate was the first exposure many had to many of the first-time challengers. I have heard people express surprise by the eloquence of Ms. Hargis or Mr. Mitchell, and I wonder if it’s because of their youth. Bill Samaris shares many of the same beliefs as Mr. Mitchell in particular, but he did much better in the preliminary. It might be because he seems an elder statesman and is familiar, as he was a Lowell High School headmaster. Dan Rourke, who did very well, is an exception to this hypothesis. However, he is related to and has been promoted by a popular State Representative, Tom Golden. Regardless, it highlights the challenge newcomers without some connection have in getting their message heard, even after countless radio interviews and neighborhood forums.