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Boston finds answers to youth violence City's approach to crime may be model for Baltimore


BOSTON -- Three years ago, even as overall crime was on the decline here, violent crime committed by juveniles remained stubbornly high. The vast majority of the victims were other young people. Boston saw a record 16 juveniles murdered in 1993 alone.

In response, the city launched an aggressive effort to target those they believe to be responsible for most juvenile violence: hard-core members of the more than 30 youth gangs in the city.

Police from a special anti-gang unit are assigned to monitor individual gangs. "Streetworkers" hired by city agencies talk with gang members and try to steer them toward education and job training. Probation officers, teamed with police, visit the homes of youths convicted of crimes.

The results have been startling. The number of juveniles -- defined by police here as under the age of 17 -- charged with violent crime has decreased by more than half during the past three years, police say. Violent crime is off 20 percent in the public schools.

And, in a key indicator, the parade of young shooting victims has stopped. Not one juvenile has been shot to death in this city of 575,000 since July 1995. (Through early December of this year, Baltimore has seen 25 children under the age of 17 cut down by gunfire.)

"People ask me about that statistic all the time," says Police Commissioner Paul Evans. "What I say is, there are a number of things we've been doing that are positive, but I can't single out one that explains it. Maybe in the end, there has been a certain amount of luck."

Nevertheless, criminologists are studying Boston as a model for ways to decrease juvenile crime. Many believe that Boston, by targeting juveniles, has driven down other crime statistics: The number of homicides has dropped from 152 in 1990 to 57 so far this year.

"It seems to me that the success of Boston is an example of some concentrated work on youth violence and gangs," says George Kelling, a criminologist and co-author of "Fixing Broken Windows." "And I think that can apply to many cities."

Boston police officials caution against making direct comparisons between their statistical success and the murder rate in Baltimore, because the demographics of the cities are so different.

Boston is a smaller, wealthier city, and has never had as many as 160 homicides in a single year. By contrast, Baltimore, with a population of 690,000, will finish 1996 with more than 300 murders for the seventh consecutive year.

But at the same time, law enforcement officials and experts in both cities say that, in any examination of Boston, two points stand out as possible models.

One is the Boston Police Department's commitment to cooperating with social service agencies, probation officers, and state and federal law enforcement.

The other is the city government's willingness to acknowledge and directly engage youth gangs that are responsible for much of Boston's violent crime.

Behind that strategy is a key insight gleaned from years of tracking guns and murders: Street violence stems mostly from rivalry, fear and the need to arm oneself for protection, rather than from competition over drug markets.

Taking on the gangs

Boston came to grips with its gang problem in 1990.

"Until then, we couldn't admit that we had gangs," says police Lt. Robert O'Toole, a former department spokesman.

The 152 homicides that year -- a city record -- forced the city to re-evaluate its crime-fighting tactics.

"Before we began studying the problem in 1990, we didn't really have a clue who was killing who and how they were doing it," Evans says.

Working closely with state and local authorities as well as crime experts from Boston-area universities, police began to learn about a change in the criminal culture.

Violence that during much of the 1980s had been tied to the thriving drug trade in neighborhoods such as Dorchester and Roxbury had taken on a life of its own.

The fear of violence was no longer limited to young drug dealers; youths not involved in selling drugs were arming themselves and joining gangs for protection.

Most shootings, police learned, were the result of disputes between 400 or so hard-core members of the city's gangs.

One study showed that the victim and the suspect in the "average" Boston homicide each had been charged with more than nine crimes. Many of these victims and suspects were gang members, who accounted for more than 60 percent of juvenile homicides in the city.

"Shootings and violence, however they may look, are not random," says police Lt. Gary French.

Change in tactics

This information argued for a change in tactics. Instead of focusing on making drug arrests, police officials began to work on preventing violence directly.

As it finally emerged, Boston's strategy had three facets: to offer alternatives to lives of crime for the vast majority of teen-agers, to intervene in the lives of young people who have been trouble with the law, and to take tough action against youths who commit violent crimes.

Perhaps the most innovative part of the strategy is Operation Nite Lite, experts say.

The operation sends probation officers and police on night visits to the homes of juveniles on probation. Some civil libertarians have criticized the practice, questioning whether the police presence might constitute an illegal search. But city officials say they have no such qualms and label the program a success.

Gang members agree. They say the visits have turned probation from a joke into a reality, and have prompted some parents to pay more attention to their problems.

"That operation shows the kind of attitude the city government has now," says French.

Many other reforms came within the police department, where officials decentralized the drug unit and emphasized prevention. And they created an anti-gang unit, known as the Youth Violence Strike Force.

The force allowed the police department to institutionalize cooperation between many agencies.

The force consists of 45 full-time Boston police officers and 15 officers detailed from, among other groups, the state police, probation department, Massachusetts Corrections and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"We used to tell you we could, but the police can't do it themselves," says O'Toole.

French, who heads the strike force, quickly discovered that reducing youth violence would require a departure from his days as a narcotics detective, when he had been judged by the number of arrests he made.

The police department has made members of the strike force exempt from all calls. Instead, members are assigned to monitor and talk with individual gangs. And the force debriefs arrested juveniles to add to its intelligence on gangs -- all of which is entered into a database.

'Don't shoot that boy'

French says officers must be close to the gangs so they can send a message: If the gang stays away from violence, it won't be targeted by police. But if shooting begins and members are responsible, police promise to arrest the gang's leaders and shut it down.

"The police is very definite about what the rules is," says Rashad, a gang member who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used. "It helps because we say to each other now, 'Don't shoot that boy because we're going to have problems with the police.' "

Community groups and individual residents also are credited for reinforcing the message of government and police programs. Some city churches have adopted specific gangs. Agencies have assigned employees to preventing youth violence. Most notable are the mayor's office and the Boston Community Centers, which together have hired 50 "streetworkers."

For $21,300 a year, the street- workers make contact with gang members, negotiate truces between warring groups, and "cool off" neighborhoods where tempers have flared. Their goal is to win the trust of gangs, and coax members into schools and job training.

Basketball for peace

The streetworkers' most effective tool has been the Peace Basketball League, which they organized after a rash of gang PTC killings on a subway line in 1990.

Each team is drawn from gang members from the same neighborhood, and games between the gangs are carefully scheduled for neutral turf. For safety reasons, no spectators are allowed. The league is hardly a panacea, but it helps build trust between gangs and authorities, say streetworkers and gang members. "You can see it helps calm things down," says Michael Wood, who has played in the league. "These guys normally expressed their competitiveness in a hostile way. Now they are expressing it on the court."

On a recent afternoon, when two teen-age gang members pull up beside streetworker Ernest Hughes Jr., the league proves to be a useful conversation point. Hughes calls the teen-agers by their first names as they chat about the past season.

Then one teen-ager complains about a member of a different gang who "disrespected us."

Hughes listens, and prods. Who is the rival gang member? Where does he live? Might there be trouble there? And what can Hughes do to smooth it out? "Let me talk to this guy," Hughes finally says.

Officials believe these conversations save lives.

Lucinda Charles, a high school sophomore in the Dorchester neighborhood, says she feels safer in her high school than she did last year. But she is worried that the troublemakers have not been removed, only quieted.

"You don't feel as threatened," says Charles, 16. "And you see the same kids. But right now, they are not causing the same trouble."

Pub Date: 12/27/96

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