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Larry Anderson of Worcester holds up a hairbrush last night for the City Council Public Safety Committee, showing the handle's unusually sharp point. Anderson is concerned about the proposed city ordinance pertaining to possession of knives (ED COLLIER)

Worcester considers a limit on the length of knives

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Worcester city councilors, from left, Joseph M. Petty, Barbara G. Haller and Philip P. Palmieri, listen last night to comments about knife ownership.

WORCESTER- A proposed ordinance regulating knife possession in the city generated strong reservations last night from several people who claimed it would make lawbreakers out of law-abiding citizens.

They contend the ordinance misidentifies the underlying reason behind escalating knife violence in the city and, as a result, could make carrying a jackknife, a Swiss Army or other utility knife a crime because they would be considered weapons.

They also raised concerns about how evenly the law would be enforced, because it would be left to the discretion of police to determine how a person was going to use the knife.

"Knives are not the problem. The problem is how those knives are being used," William S. Safer, a city resident who has been involved in law enforcement for more than 25 years, told the City Council Public Safety Committee. "This law would wrongly punish everyone."

Larry Anderson, also a city resident, said because most of the knife violence appears gang-related, the city should be focusing on gang activity rather than adopting a law that would impact law-abiding residents as well.

"If the problem is with gangs and their use of knives and blades, then (the police) should be dealing with the gangs," Mr. Anderson said. "Don't use a law that would affect everyone. And if you ban knives, what's next? Letter openers, Bic pens and paper clips can be used in a fight and cause serious injury as well."

Eight people spoke before the committee, and all expressed concern about various aspects of the ordinance.

The Public Safety Committee is considering an ordinance developed by the Police Department, Worcester District Attorney's office and city officials that would make it illegal to carry a knife with a blade longer than 1.5 inches. People caught with such knives in their possession would be fined $300.

The ordinance was put together in response to a dramatic increase in knife violence during the past couple of years. Police Chief Gary J. Gemme said there have been 117 stabbings in the city so far this year, putting it on a pace of about 140 for the year. In comparison, there were 118 stabbings last year and 86 the year before.

Chief Gemme said knife usage in crimes has also increased, with 278 such incidents so far this year compared to 249 for all of last year.

"This is one tool to address this problem," the chief said. "We, as a community, have to look at knife violence the same way we looked at gun violence a couple of years ago."

District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said the numbers cited by Chief Gemme are "staggering" and called knife-related violence in the city an "epidemic." He emphasized that the ordinance would be targeted primarily at the after-hours bar and nightclub crowds where there has been an outbreak of knife-related violence.

"We realized we were going to make some people angry with this, but its greater goal is the public safety," Mr. Early said. "This is where we have to start. To do nothing is to fail."

But District 2 City Councilor Philip P. Palmieri said he would be hesitant to support such an ordinance unless there was proof that knife violence has decreased in other communities where similar laws exist. He said he would much rather see tougher laws drawn up for those who commit crimes with a knife.

"I feel strongly about the violence in this city, but I couldn't support a law that would make law-abiding citizens feel like they were doing something wrong," Mr. Palmieri said. "I would really like to see us get a lot tougher with those people who commit crimes with knives."

Councilor-at-Large Joseph M. Petty called the proposed ordinance a "good start." To address some of the concerns that were raised, he said he would support amending the ordinance to make it illegal to carry a knife with a blade larger than 2.5 inches, thus making it legal to carry many utility and Swiss Army knives.

District 4 Councilor Barbara G. Haller, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee, said she is convinced of the seriousness of the knife violence in the city. But in light of the concerns that have been raised and suggestions that have been made to amend the ordinance, she said it was appropriate for the committee "to step back and take another look at this."

The committee tabled the ordinance so the police chief and district attorney can respond to suggestions made to possibly amend it.
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