When the Mayor and Police Start Swinging at Each Other, the Public Has to Duck

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

One night back in 1974 or 75, the Malden City Council was holding its regular weekly meeting when a dispute arose over some action by the police department. I can't remember the details. It may have had to do with the ticketing of cars in a particular section and the councilor for that ward was complaining. Or it may have been a question about the number of officers patrolling the streets overnight and a councilor was demanding that the chief appear for questioning.

In any event, the temperature in the room shot up in a matter of seconds. It was obvious that a significant minority of the 11 councilors was ready for a fight. Some were unhappy with what the police had done, others were sticking up for the cops.

Malden's long-serving mayor, Walter Kelliher, a lieutenant commander in the Navy during World War II, was attending the meeting, as was his practice, and became uncomfortable with the critical examination of a subject that had not attracted any attention before that night.

He may have sent a signal to the council president or not, but all of a sudden the president banged the gavel and called for a 10-minute recess. People shuffled about as they do at recesses. Little murmurring groups formed at the back of the council chamber, in the adjoining council office, and in the hallway.

As a reporter covering the event, I sidled up to the mayor to hear what he was saying to a member of his staff, one councilor and a former member of the council who happened to be in the building. Kelliher had a distinct view, which has stuck with me all these years.

"You never want a discussion like this coming up in public just because somebody feels like talking about it," I heard him say. "The police are our first line of defense, they have the toughest job: guaranteeing public safety. You don't want to undermine the confidence of the public in the police, because if that goes, you'll have problems much worse than the one we're talking about now."

Whether it was the break in the action or the emergence of cooler heads, the mid-meeting idleness had the desired effect. When the council reconvened, there was a quick voice vote to table the matter until the police chief had time to investigate and report back to the council's public safety committee. I can't recall if such a report, verbal or written, was ever made, but I don't think the matter ever came up again, at least in public.

Kelliher's words have come back to me again and again as I've read recent reports out of Lawrence, (population 76,377), where the rookie mayor, William Lantigua, is fighting with the police. The friction has been caused by, among other things, a sharp reduction in the number of police officers due to departmental budget cuts. At the same time, Lantigua is reportedly under investigation by state and federal authorities for his dealings with Lawrence towing companies, nightclubs and taxi operators.

You don't have to be a professor of journalism to discern that (unnamed) members of the Lawrence Police Department are feeding the media some of the details of these investigations. Lantigua, for the record, denies having done anything wrong.

With its chronic financial problems, depressed local economy, high unemployment, and a now-rising crime rate, the last thing Lawrence needs is animosity and distrust between its mayor and police department. Long known as the "Immigrant City," Lawrence is one of several older, former industrial powerhouse cities in Massachusetts that are doing the heavy work of helping to turn poor newcomers into successful new Americans, work that benefits our society as a whole.

Politics, however, never takes a back seat to civics. So it was hardly surprising when a prominent elected Republican used the latest controversy in Lawrence to slam Lantigua and the mayor's fellow Democrats. "As far as I'm concerned, Deval Patrick and John Walsh (chairman of the state Democratic committee) own this guy (Lantigua)...They spent a lot of money to get him elected," the Boston Herald quoted this gentleman as saying.

If one party could turn the "ownership" of an urban dilemma over to another, this world would be a much neater place. But in the land of no-make-believe, we all own a piece of the Lawrences of America, and always will.

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