Lawrence will be able to retain the jobs of six police officers as a result of $750,000 in newly awarded funds from the US Justice Department.
The city was one of just three Massachusetts communities to receive a share of $111 million awarded nationwide by the department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The others were Boston and New Bedford.
The grants pay for 75 percent of the costs over three years of hiring and rehiring officers or retaining officers who would otherwise be laid off due to budget cuts.
The Lawrence Police Department, which has been hit hard by job cuts the last few years, will use its funding to maintain the jobs of six officers who are currently being paid through a $632,000 state grant awarded last October. Without the new federal grant, those officers would probably have faced layoffs on Nov. 1, officials said.
Police Chief John Romero said Lawrence had applied unsuccessfully for a grant under the same federal program last fall.
Noting the limited funding in the recent round, he said, “We were very happy when we saw we were just one of three Massachusetts departments and one of just a few in the country to receive the grant.”
The city is hoping to secure an additional state grant this fall to hire eight to 10 more officers for a year, according to Kathleen Flanagan, the Police Department’s director of support services.
The ranks of the Police Department began to drop three years ago, Flanagan said, when the city was engulfed in a severe fiscal crunch.
At the start of fiscal 2010 on July 1, 2009, the department’s complement of officers fell to 148 when it was unable to fill 12 positions that had become vacant largely due to retirements.
The department was only spared further reductions – which would have come in the form of layoffs – by its receipt of two Justice Department grants, one of them from the same community policing program, Flanagan said.
But the loss of personnel intensified a year later when the department had to eliminate 38 more positions – 24 of them through layoffs — as part of citywide spending reductions.
The cash-strapped department had to close down all its specialized units, including those combating drugs, gangs, burglary, insurance fraud, and auto theft, and 16 superior officers were demoted to lower-paying positions.
Officials say those cuts, which reduced the department’s complement to 110 officers, directly contributed to a spike in the city’s crime rate that was noticeable beginning with the start of fiscal 2011.
“We became a reactive department,” Romero said, with all the officers forced to devote their time to answering service calls. “We weren’t doing anything proactive to deal with the underlying issues of crime. We were simply responding to crime. That’s the least effective way to fight crime.”
But as a result of last fall’s state grant and now the federal money, “I think we’ve turned the corner,” Romero said.
The state money paid for the rehiring of seven of the previously laid-off officers. The new federal grant will help the town retain six of those officers starting Nov. 1, when the state grant will expire.
The seventh officer will be paid entirely through city funds.
Already, the additional hirings allowed the city this past April 1 to bring back its specialized units – though staffing for them remains limited – and to restore 11 of the 16 demoted officers to their prior ranks. The remaining five officers had retired.
Romero said that the return of those units is already having a noticeable impact on crime. In just the first two months, the units made more than 200 arrests.
“They’ve hooked up now with all the agencies they had been working with,” Flanagan said of the units. “They’re back in the swing.”
To match the federal grant, the city will have to commit to spending $250,000 toward the cost of retaining the six officers over three years.
But Flanagan said the total cost of funding the officers’ salaries and benefits over that time is about $1.25 million, so the city’s actual cost will be about $500,000.
Still, Flanagan said the grant provides “$250,000 a year in relief for the city” while helping to keep six experienced officers on the job.
The federal grant requires that any officers hired or rehired with the grant money be military veterans, but that provision does not apply to Lawrence because all of the officers involved are existing members of the department.
Romero cited the help of US Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat, and US senators John F. Kerry and Scott Brown in helping the city secure the funds.
Tsongas took part in a June 29 ceremony at the police station officially announcing the grant.
“This award will help to bring the Lawrence Police Department back up to adequate manpower levels so it can once again perform the proactive policing and crime prevention activities so necessary to the safety of our community,” Tsongas said in remarks prepared for the event.