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FITCHBURG -- Ward 4 Councilor Kevin Starr wants to institute an anti-gang ordinance that he said will give cops an extra tool when fighting gangs in the city.
"We have a serious gang problem in this city and it's just getting progressively worse," Starr said.
The ordinance is based on an almost identical petition the city of Somerville adopted in 2004 as a home-rule petition.
The ordinance creates strict standards against gang loitering, or a group of gang members standing in a certain area for an extended period of time.
Gang members, identified by the police, would be subject to arrest if they continue to loiter after being warned.
The ordinance would also create a gang advisory board in the city.
The advisory board would be appointed by the police chief, city solicitor and mayor, and would include representatives of the minority community.
The gang advisory board would be responsible, along with the police chief, for designating certain areas of the city as areas to focus anti-gang efforts on.
But some police experts and representatives from Somerville said they think the ordinance raises some legal questions and is difficult to enforce.
State Rep. Denise Provost, D-Somerville, sat on Somerville's board of Alderman -- the city's governing body -- and cast the lone dissenting vote against the ordinance's adoption in 2004. "This is not what it appears," said Provost, now one of two state representatives for Somerville. "It sounds good, but anybody who is a lawyer should really give this a passionate legal analysis."

She said the ordinance gives too much power to police and allows for minority and racial profiling.
"I see an ordinance riddled with Constitutional flaws, and so complex as to be practically unenforceable," Provost said in a letter explaining her opinion to vote against it in 2004.
Provost argues that "gang loitering" has 13 separate elements that must be proven to justify an arrest.
Provost, a Boston University-educated lawyer, said the ordinance has never been used in Somerville.
"While it's bad law, it was good politics," Provost said.
But Fitchburg City Councilors, and some members of the police department, said something should be done about gangs in the city.
Ward 3 Councilor Joel Kaddy, a former police officer, said he wholeheartedly supports the ordinance.
He said gangs are not a big problem in Fitchburg right now, but they could become one quickly if nothing is done.
"We're a heartbeat away," Kaddy said.
Kaddy said he would also support establishing a gang unit in the Police Department.
Kaddy said assigning officers specifically to work on an issue like gangs would be a good thing for the department. It would be taking a proactive approach to fighting the problem and would give officers solid substantive focused work, he said.
"It's one of the best things we can do for ourselves," Kaddy said.
Kaddy also said gang issues can get worse in a poor economy.
Starr said he introduced the petition after meeting with members of the Fitchburg Police Department, who brought the idea to his attention.
"Anything I can do that's going to enable them to do their job better I'm going to do," Starr said.
Starr said gangs are a problem in Fitchburg.
He said he doesn't want teenagers to get caught up in gangs, so he wants to make sure the problem doesn't get out of hand.
"This (ordinance) is something that's going to give the cops an extra tool to do their job," Starr said.
Starr said rather than reacting to gang problems before they worsen in the city, he wants to take proactive steps.
Starr said he wouldn't be concerned about the elements it would take to convict someone on a gang loitering charge, and said Fitchburg Police would not engage in racial profiling.
"We've got a lot of good cops here and they know their stuff," Starr said.
Starr also said the program would cost no money to implement.
"I'm not saying this will work for us, but it's worth a shot," Starr said.
Three Pyramids director Adrian Ford, a leader in the city's African-American community, said he has reservations about the ordinance.
He said he's dealt with loitering ordinances before, and he said they traditionally have disproportionately negatively affected low-income and minority populations.
"A lot of poor people live in neighborhoods where they don't have a yard, they may not have a porch or steps," Ford said. "So where are you going to go?"
Ford said when police question minority groups about loitering when they are doing nothing wrong, that creates a schism between the police and members of the community.
Ford said the gang issue in Fitchburg is blown out of proportion.
"The issues around drug dealing, low-level dealing and addiction are directly related to alienation, poverty and isolation, it leaves people feeling that's all they can do," Ford said.
Ford said there are better ways to deal with the problems.
"There are issues around gangs and violence, but we need to balance that with people's rights and really do some real community policing," he said.
Ford said the best thing for the city to do is to create relationships with members of the community, have a presence in the neighborhood and foster positive interactions with youth.
Fitchburg Sgt. Mark Jackson worked with Starr to introduce the legislation to Fitchburg and he said he thinks the ordinance could be an effective tool in helping police reduce illegal activity in the city.
"It's not a fix-all," Jackson said. "The bottom line is that you need to curtail the drug activity."
Jackson said drug dealing is one of the main things gangs do.
He said the ordinance would give police "one small tool to assist with that."
Jackson, who is black, said he's not worried about the profiling or the notion that this law would be difficult to enforce.
He said some gang members openly tell police officers they are members of a gang. Also, he said officers can track gang members in databases and in records.
"It's not going to be us going on a fishing expedition," Jackson said.
Jackson said the legislation could help reduce the gang problem in Fitchburg, which he said in the past few years has begun to come back.
He said gangs intimidate some members of the neighborhood, making some residents prisoners of their own homes.
He said allowing police to charge known gang members for loitering will help crack down on drug crimes and create safer neighborhoods.
Thomas Nolan, an associate professor of criminal justice at Boston University, is a former 27-year veteran of the Boston Police Department.
He questions if the ordinance would pass Constitutional muster.
He said the ordinance is like a "sledge hammer" and is too broad.
"How do you define a 'gang member?'" Nolan said.
Nolan said instead of an ordinance like this one, police departments should use laws already on the books and enforce those.
"If they're drug dealing, robbing people, get them for that," he said.
Fitchburg Councilor at-large Dean Tran said any idea to improve the quality of life in the city is good.
But, he also said that any ordinance targeting a group of people is subject to legal challenges.
"We will have to work hard to write an ordinance that would observe an individual's Constitutional rights and stand up to legal challenges," he said.
Tran said a better idea would be to target the places where the activity is happening.
Tran said he filed legislation two years ago that would indirectly target the issue of absentee landlords and slumlords, which is where he said gang activity occurs.
Fitchburg Police Chief Robert DeMoura said the city is not plagued with violent gangs.
"We're always cognizant," he said. "We have a problem, but it's not a major problem."
But DeMoura said he would have to review the ordinance fully before saying if it should be adopted in Fitchburg.
"We need to review what we're trying to accomplish and target specific things related to Fitchburg," DeMoura said.
The ordinance has been referred to the city's Public Safety Committee, which will be discussing the ordinance in the coming weeks.
Mayor Lisa Wong said she hasn't had a chance to look specifically at the ordinance, but said she's happy the council is taking a proactive approach to fighting illegal activity.
"I think this city is and always will be diligent against any illicit activity," Wong said.
Wong said it will be important to discuss how to balance civil rights and public safety.
Wong said fighting gangs, though, has to be a multi-pronged approach that includes more than just what officers see on the street. Wong said she's been impressed with how police officers have utilized information to develop relationships in the community and fight crime.
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