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By ROBERT MILLS
LOWELL, Mass. — Four men sit down at a table in downtown Lowell. They largely ignore the coffee in front of them and start talking about the issues facing themselves and the 191 police officers under their command.
Each is a recently appointed police chief in one of Greater Lowell's biggest communities — Kevin Richardson from Dracut, James Murphy from Chelmsford, Al Donovan from Tewksbury and Michael Begonis from Wilmington.
All four have been appointed since December 2003, and together they work to protect more than 100,000 people, as many as in Lowell alone.
Though each man was only recently appointed chief, all four have served for at least 18 years in the department they now command.
These police chiefs will face problems new and old — from the Internet, where children can be lured by sexual predators and identities can be stolen — to drugs, an old problem that has evolved and may soon evolve again.
One of the biggest changes for their departments: The use of technology in police work, and crime.
"It's a great tool for us and for them," Begonis said. "It's a blessing and a curse."
Technology has led to helpful advances, less-than-lethal weapons such as Tasers, and computers that can access information on suspects that used to take hours and repeated phone calls to other departments to get, the chiefs said.
It has also made things more difficult. Drug dealers used to ply their wares on street corners, where they could be watched. They now pack cell phones and pagers, and make home deliveries.
On the police side, increasing use of technology also means an increasing need for officer training.
"We're looking for computer geeks to do our crime-fighting," Donovan said. "Technology is getting better every day, but the problem is finding people that can use it."
As new technology joins the tools at law enforcement's disposal, high-tech training is essential for officers, who it can take up to a year to select, train and hire.
Additional advances that could change police work are transponders in cruisers that enable commanders to monitor the location of the cars at all times. Such a system is already working in Tewksbury.
Cameras will also change things as they are more commonly used to watch for traffic offenders and to keep an eye on public areas, Murphy said. He said Chelmsford soon will consider installing cameras in some areas to catch traffic offenders.
Technology is being developed to enable officers in their cruisers to view live footage taken by cameras in places such as schools, Murphy said.
A technology that will continue to change law enforcement is the Internet, where identities can be stolen and children can be lured by sexual predators.
The popularity of Web sites like MySpace.com have exposed children to dangers much less imminent in the days when neighbors knew each other and would watch out for the kids next door, the chiefs said.
Children might not mean to get into trouble online, but when they talk to predators who slowly wear down their defenses and begin asking real-life questions, things can get serious.
One of the best solutions to that threat is getting parents more involved, and better educated about the Internet, the chiefs said.
"Parents have to be more engaged with their children, especially with drugs and the Internet," Begonis said.
New drugs, old horrors
The issue of drugs has changed over the years, from days the chiefs remember when marijuana and cocaine were the biggest concerns, to today, when cheap, potent heroin and OxyContin are claiming lives.
Whatever drugs are in vogue, though, the crimes connected to them — housebreaks, car breaks, robberies, and assaults — remain largely the same.
Richardson suggests that more than 90 percent of some of those crimes are related to drugs.
Heroin used to come at a strength that required users to take it intravenously to get the desired high. Recently the drug has grown stronger, meaning users no longer have to inject. That means the stigma of intravenous drugs is gone, at least at first.
Begonis said the higher potency of heroin enables users to snort it, which for the average teen just isn't as scary as injecting a drug. The difference means little in the long run.
The more heroin an individual uses, the more they need to get high, and soon addiction takes over, leaving the user no longer concerned about shooting the drug into a vein.
OxyContin is even easier to ingest. It simply comes in a pill.
Perhaps scarier than the cheap potency of heroin is evidence that methamphetamine use has begun to reach this area.
Meth, even more than heroin or cocaine, leaves users practically debilitated, according to Murphy, who noted that police often find heroin addicts who at least hold down a job and keep some semblance of order in their lives.
The chiefs do not expect to see that if meth explodes in this region.
"Those people just deteriorate so quickly," Begonis said. "They can't keep working, so the only alternative is to commit crimes."
The ease with which users access instructions for making meth on the Internet, and then follow through by setting up the highly toxic and potentially explosive meth labs in their homes, is another concern.
Meth has just started to reach this region, but already both Donovan's and Murphy's departments have had to call in bomb squads to help them secure meth labs discovered last year.
Donovan said drugs and computer crimes are plenty to keep police busy, especially because the departments the four men now command have scarcely grown since 20 years ago, when call volumes and population were much lower.
Budget constraints across the state have kept their departments from hiring new officers, and in some instances from replacing officers that retired or left their jobs.
Technology has made officers more efficient, but all four chiefs agreed that computers cannot replace the value of a man or woman in uniform.
"Nothing is going to deter crime like the officer on the street," Richardson said.
"With the advent of the microwave they didn't eliminate the chef," Begonis added.
With all that work ahead, maybe the chiefs should have hit that coffee here in Lowell a little harder.
Mass. police chiefs facing high-tech challenges