Lowell Week in Review: April 11, 2015

Public Safety

Public safety encompasses many things, a few of which came up at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

The quarterly overdose report was presented to the council by city Health Department Director Frank Singleton and Trinity Ambulance’s John Chemaly.  Things don’t seem to be improving much.  The council has latched onto increasing the number of beds for addiction treatment at Tewksbury State Hospital.  There is certainly a critical need for more addiction treatment options but this is a complex issue that to be effectively addressed, will require many things, some of which will make some important people uncomfortable.

For example, the last time Singleton spoke at a council meeting, he turned the spotlight on doctors who over prescribe powerful pain medication when it is not clearly necessary, implying that there is some financial incentive for them to do so.  Is city or state government seeking to address this with the medical profession?  Unlikely.  Pointing to the medical/pharmaceutical industry as one of the root causes of the opioid epidemic is one of those things that make public officials squirm so that avenue is off limits.  It’s a little bit like questioning where all the illegal guns are coming from.  Because of the political power of the pro-gun interests, we have to accept widespread availability of guns as something as natural as the sun rising in the morning.

Speaking of guns, I commend the city administration and the city council for funding the purchase of the Shot Spotter system.  The system will only cover about three square miles of the city’s fourteen square mile area, but the areas with the greatest incidence of gunfire should be covered.  As I understand the system, multiple automated listening posts will be positioned at strategic locations around the covered neighborhoods.  These devices are discriminating enough to distinguish a gunshot from a firecracker.  When the system hears a gunshot, all sensors will instantly traverse to the origin of the noise, thereby marking the location of the gunshot on a central system.  Cameras that are built into the sensors will also grab images of the area from which the gunshot came, hopefully capturing likeness of the shooter or his vehicle.

The reason I like the Shot Spotter system is that it will accurately measure the number of guns fired in the city (in addition to catching some of the shooters).  This goes to the idea of “subjective safety.”  Elected officials and the police can endlessly quote statistics that show that the number of crimes being committed has never been lower, but if citizens feel unsafe, having such statistics quoted to them seems almost patronizing.

Indeed, that’s what happened two years ago in the weeks preceding that year’s city council election.  Whether it was based on real or imagined incidents or gunfire, Lowell residents back then felt kinship to residents of cities in war zones around the globe.  At a public safety subcommittee meeting after a parade of residents spoke of their fears, those sitting behind the microphones recited statistics about plunging crime rates.  It was no wonder that candidates who talked endlessly about “improving public safety” were swept into office in that election.

Although the Shot Spotter system will also yield statistics, I think they will be more persuasive and credible than traditional crime statistics that measure the number of housebreaks and assaults.  My hope is that Shot Spotter will show that there aren’t bullets zipping through the air every night in the city and that the incidence of gunshots has been overstated.  On the other hand, the system could also show that there are far more gunshots in Lowell than have been reported.  Either way, we should know where we stand.

One area of public safety that doesn’t get as much attention as criminal activity is fire department staffing.  From a financial perspective, I understand why tight funding causes fire vehicles to be taken out of service from time to time but I find that practice troublesome from a public safety perspective.  Fire coverage is always relative.  Even at 100% staffing, more fire stations, vehicles, and fire fighters would make us safer.  But someone in city government has determined that what we have now leaves us “safe enough” based on what we can afford.    If one vehicle closure per shift still leaves us “safe enough”, why isn’t that vehicle closed permanently?  And if it doesn’t leave us “safe enough”, isn’t it reckless to shut down vehicles for financial reasons?

Perhaps the city should hire some independent agency to do an assessment of our deployment, staffing and usage of firefighting equipment.  (And if such a study has already been done, what’s become of it?).  Maybe we would be better off with more firefighters per vehicle but fewer vehicles.  Maybe more aggressive enforcement of fire safety laws and ordinances (sprinklers, smoke detectors, construction materials) would increase fire safety indirectly.  Maybe we are just fooling ourselves with what we have now and need a greatly enhanced department.  I’d rather approach fire safety that way and then figure out how to pay for what we need rather than having our staffing set by how much money is allocated from a much larger city budget.

Unwanted Medication Disposal Day

When a burglar breaks into a house, I suspect the first stop is the medicine cabinet in search for pain killers.  Only then are cash and small electronics sought.  And having powerful pain meds collecting dust in drawers and cabinets only invites abuse by family members and friends.

That is why it is so important to promptly get rid of medication that is no longer needed.  This coming Wednesday, April 15, from 3pm to 7pm, the Lowell Health Department will collect unwanted medications at the city’s Health Department at 346 Pine Street.  Please clean out your medicine cabinet and deliver the stuff that’s no longer needed to the Health Department for proper disposal.


Dutton St

On Wednesday night, the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments hosted a comment session on its Regional Transportation Plan.  About 25 people attended and most of the discussion involved walkers, bikers and riders of public transportation.  Please read my report on the meeting including the thoughtful comments some of those who attended contributed to the post.

It’s extremely important that those of us who believe Lowell would be a better place if it paid more attention to walkers and bikers attend and participate in these type of meetings and events and let our opinions be heard.  Although elected officials are sincere in their statements that they want the city to be more walkable, they often fail to realize that leaving the planning of new roads and related amenities – including those for pedestrians – to the experts (i.e., traffic engineers) just ensures that new projects will be vehicle friendly with pedestrians left as an afterthought.

If you have suggestions for raising the collective consciousness of city government on the importance of walkability – as that term is understood by walkers, not highway designers – please share them with us.

Cambodian New Year and Monuments

The Cambodian community had beautiful weather for the New Year’s Celebration at Clemente Park yesterday.  There was food, games, entertainment of all sorts and plenty of people.

Angkor Dance Troupe at Clemente Park

On Thursday, the KhmerPost USA (the Cambodian language newspaper) held its quarterly Press Club gathering at Lowell Telecommunications.  The primary topic was the proposed Cambodian monument that will be placed on the grounds of Lowell City Hall.  State Representative Rady Mom spoke about the progress of the committee appointed by Mayor Elliott to help select the monument.  The committee is seeking artists who will submit design proposals for a monument that is culturally, aesthetically, and historically accurate.  Three of those proposals will be selected by the committee and then the entire community will have the opportunity to vote for the final design.  Kevin Coughlin, the Deputy Director of Division of Planning and Development, explained that the city is exploring options for turning the grounds around City Hall, particularly the plaza between City Hall and the JFK Civic Center, into a type of monument garden that will be a peaceful, contemplative place for people to come and view the various monuments already in place and those that will come in the future.

Dr. Sengly Kong of the Cambodia Town organization then spoke about a separate monument that will be emplaced on a small triangular point of land at the intersection of Branch and Middlesex Streets across from Clemente Park.  This monument, described as an appropriately sized replica of the four stone faces carved into the tower that dominates the Bayon Temple in Cambodia.  Sengly explained that the Cambodian Ministry of Culture has agreed to pay much of the cost of this monument which is now being sculpted by an artist in Cambodia.  Once finished, it will be shipped to Lowell for installation.

Some of those in attendance at the Press Club event expressed disagreement with having the current Cambodian government finance this monument.  To me, this was a clear example of how divisions in the politics of Cambodia today also divide the Cambodian community today.  It is difficult for someone outside of the local Cambodian community (like me) to fully understand the details of this dispute, but it clearly excites great passion among many of our Cambodian neighbors here in Lowell and the rift tends to keep the local Cambodian community from exercising political power here in Lowell at a level commensurate with the large number of Cambodian-American residents living here in the city.

NCAA Hockey Championship

As a 1980 graduate of Providence College, I am compelled to congratulate the Friars for their first-ever NCAA Hockey Championship.  PC has been part of Hockey East since its inception and plays UMass Lowell twice each year.  The losing team in the finals, Boston University, is also a member of Hockey East.  So when we go to the Tsongas Center to watch the Riverhawks play, it’s nice to know that we are seeing the best college hockey teams in the country.

2 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: April 11, 2015

  1. Joe Smith says:

    When looking at gunfire statistics, an important parameter with be the False Alarm Rate. Hopefully, thie new system will overcome some of the FAR problems that plagued earlier versions of shotspotter, or else the statistics will be thrown off.

    Will the Cambodiam monument in the triangle of public property avoid any issue with promoting a particular religion?

  2. Jason says:

    There was an extensive private study of the fire department done in the early 90’s, before firefighters even took on first responder EMS duties and expanded Haz-Mat response in addition to fire and rescue. It recommended keeping all eleven stations in service at that time. It was ignored and three stations were closed permanently anyway. We have continued the “Temporary” closings as policy since that time. Sort of like the Rourke Bridge is temporary. I’m sure the city still has a copy of that study. If not I may have a copy in my historical archive. The big problem is that there is very little that can be changed based on current city and department infrastructure, without significant spending. No one wants to take responsibility for either spending the money or closing the neighborhood fire station.

    Something else I find interesting in light of the opiate issue is that no one is mentioning that LFD is the public agency responding to these incidents and administering Narcan. We use it regularly. I gave it twice last week. If the fire dept. is providing these services (among many others) why isn’t it being noted as part of the keeping stations open debate?