As Haverhill battles a gang problem, organizers of those criminal groups are recruiting juveniles as members, police said.
“We know that they’re being recruited,” Deputy Police Chief Anthony Haugh said of minors who are lured into gangs.
While older shooters get prison time if they’re caught and convicted, the courts tend to treat the juveniles more leniently, Haugh said.
His comments came during last week's City Council meeting, where councilors and police discussed public safety as Haverhill is facing more shootings and a larger gang presence.
Haugh told the council that his department is working hard at catching and prosecuting violent gang members.
“We want to be known as relentless,” he said.
Haugh said there is a proposal before the state Legislature to not consider criminal offenders adults until they reach the age of 21.
“We think that would be a big mistake,” he said.
Currently, offenders are treated as adults if they are 18 or older.
Haugh said the Police Department is well below its authorized staffing level of 109 officers, making the task of fighting gangs harder. He estimated the department has 82 working officers.
Most city officials agree that more police officers are needed to curb gangs and gun violence.
Three members of the department are out of action because of injuries, Haugh said. Another two are on maternity leave, he said.
“We have had an unprecedented number of retirements,” he said.
Recruiting and retaining police officers is more challenging these days, Haugh said. Furthermore, the Civil Service exam for entry-level officers is given every other year. Removing the department from Civil Service, as is being considered by the city, might enable the city to hire more officers, he said.
The City Council unanimously passed a motion by Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua to ask Haverhill’s state legislators to push for having the Civil Service exam given annually.
When Haugh joined the Police Department in 1988, he was among about 300 local people who took the test, he said. The most recent exam drew 47 or 48 Haverhill residents, he said.
The number of young people seeking law enforcement careers is not as great as it once was, he noted. Also, police face greater scrutiny these days, he said.
City Councilor Michael McGonagle, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said police have arrested several shooting suspects lately. He pointed out, however, that the effort to reduce gang violence requires action on many fronts.
“This is a problem you don’t arrest your way out of,” he said.
The police have been working closely with UTEC, a Lowell-based organization that reaches out to people 17 to 25 years old who appear to be at risk of joining a gang.
“We’re here for the long haul,” Greg Croteau, chief executive officer of UTEC, said at the council meeting.
Two street workers from UTEC are assigned to Haverhill, he said. The organization provides job opportunities and counseling.
“We’re getting people into jobs,” he said.
Much of the gun violence has happened in the Mount Washington inner-city area, which includes the upper portion of Washington Street and nearby streets.
Christine Soundara, initiative director for the Mount Washington Alliance at Community Action, said she is working on building relationships between residents of the neighborhood and police.
“I adore my neighborhood,” said Joanna Dix, who has lived in Mount Washington for two years. Residents need more job opportunities as well as greater representation in city government, she said.
“We need to lift up the neighborhood,” she said.