Tuesday evening more than 200 people gathered in front of City Hall for a rally and peace walk organized by the United Teen Equality Center to send the message that violence will not be tolerated in the Mill City. Following a speaking program, attendees marched down Dutton Street to the Lord Overpass to hang a banner reading “Reclaim Our Community. Stop Shooting.”
Meanwhile, back at City Hall, Lowell Police and officials from Development Services, held a meeting with neighborhood leaders, city councilors and members of the city administration to discuss strategies to clean-up the most troubled neighborhoods, which statistically are the Lower Highlands, Centralville and the Acre.
Lowell Police Superintendent Ken Lavallee said his department is working with their partners in the FBI, ATF, State Police and in the Middlesex Country Sheriff’s Office as well as with community partners like the Boys and Girls Club and UTEC to curb gang culture and get these guys off the streets.
Lavallee said last year there were 162 gang-related arrests in the city; so far this year the figure has hit 199.
He added, of the victims in Sunday night’s Smith Street drive-by shooting, one has an 11-page criminal record, while another has a 6-page record.
“These are not necessarily innocent bystanders,” he said.
Capt. William Taylor, who commands the West Sector, which includes the Lower Highlands, said in light of recent events, the police are stepping up patrols in hot spots to maintain a strong, consistent visual presence on the streets.
“We are making it so the people who engage in illegal activity see blue lights all over the area,” Taylor said. “Rest assured, from a Lowell Police perspective this is personal. We are all united in our efforts to curtail the violence.”
But, it is not just a police issue. The police are working in conjunction with the city’s code inspectors to improve the physical condition of the neighborhoods and put pressure on landlords to root out problem tenants.
Department of Planning and Development Deputy Director Kendra Amaral, who oversees Development Services, said since the re-organization of Inspectional Services two years ago, the productivity of the city’s code inspectors has nearly doubled from an average annual case load of 362 to 612 per inspector.
The department is also seeing more cases through to a resolution. In the past, she said, a citation would be issued and put in a drawer. If the property owner did not comply there were seldom any consequences; today they are being taken to court.
Amaral added she and DPD Director, Assistant City Manager Adam Baacke are working to fill the gaps in existing city ordinances to give them more authority to hold property owners accountable.
For instance, in the past, the city would be notified by the telephone company when a new tenant moved into a rental unit, which would trigger an inspection. However today, many people do not have landlines, making that notification system obsolete. DPD will suggest to the City Council that all rental properties automatically be inspected every three years. They will also be looking to gain the authority to vacate an apartment that logs three code violations or one life-safety violation in a three-year period.
One of the other issue raised frequently by neighborhood leaders are vacant and foreclosed properties. They are magnets for illegal activity, as well as being fire hazards. The city’s vacant and foreclosed property ordinance requires banks who own the properties to designate a local property manager, whose name and phone number is to be posted on the property, so someone can be called if the property is overgrown or there are other issues. Residents have reported the property managers are often unresponsive to their calls.
Amaral said DPD is requesting the council change the ordinance to allow the city to issue fines against the banks when their property managers are not responsive.
In response to Lower Highlands Neighborhood Group President Taya Dixon Mullane, who disagreed with Baacke and City Manager Bernie Lynch’s statements that the city is properly staffed when it comes to code inspectors, Baacke said that while it is frustrating, troubled properties cannot be fixed overnight. The court process is often long and complicated, but he did assure the crowd the department is more productive and proactive today than ever before.