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Killing of Girl, 10, and Increase in Homicides Challenge Boston'sKilling of Girl, 10, and Increase in Homicides Challenge Boston's Crime-Fighting Model


July 15, 2002
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Killing of Girl, 10, and Increase in Homicides Challenge Boston'sKilling of Girl, 10, and Increase in Homicides Challenge Boston's Crime-Fighting Model

by Fox Butterfield, New York Times

BOSTON - They called it the Boston miracle.

Using innovative strategies, law enforcement agencies here helped reduce homicides 80 percent from 1990 to 1999, the sharpest drop in the nation. For two and a half years in the late 90's, not a single juvenile was killed with a handgun.

The police and prosecutors from around the country flocked here to study the "Boston model," and it has been incorporated as a crucial component of President Bush's main crime-fighting strategy.

But in the last two years, the number of homicides has doubled, a trend accentuated by the death this month of a 10-year-old, Trina Persad, who was struck in the head with a shotgun blast in a park in Roxbury. The police say she was shot by gang members cruising in a car in search of rivals, the type of random killing the Boston model was supposed to prevent.

Trina's death and the sudden increase in homicides have raised an angry question: What went wrong with the vaunted approach to reducing crime?

Among law enforcement officials, politicians and experts on criminal justice, it is a risky issue, because the Boston model, emphasizing creative partnerships among agencies like the police force and probation agencies, offers a distinct contrast to the other most successful crime-fighting strategy of the 1990's, that of New York City.

The New York strategy, fostered by Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, was more aggressive, going after small quality-of-life crimes like panhandling and subway-turnstile jumping and holding police commanders responsible for reducing crime in their precincts.

To explain the homicide increase here, Police Commissioner Paul F. Evans and Mayor Thomas M. Menino point to trends outside their control like the downturn in the economy, meaning fewer jobs for young people; an increase in the number of inmates leaving jail and prison; and the growth of the teenage population.

But those factors exist in many other parts of the nation, and other officials and experts involved in creating the Boston strategy say the city may have become complacent, a victim of its success.

In part, said Donald K. Stern, who as United States attorney in Boston in the Clinton administration helped develop the Boston plan, "the numbers were pushed down so low they eventually had to go up."

Homicides fell, to 31 in 1999, from a high of 152 in 1990, at the height of the epidemic of crack cocaine, gangs and handguns.

Last year, the number of homicides jumped, to 66. This year, through July 10, the number is 29, identical to the total for the same period last year, according to the Boston police.

"We also have to be honest and admit that some of the missionary zeal of the original players was hard to sustain with the success we achieved," said Mr. Stern, now a lawyer with Bingham McCutchen here. "The people coming later may not feel the urgency in their bones as much."

That is particularly true for a critical part of the plan known as Operation Cease-Fire, Mr. Stern said. Cease-Fire involved calling in young men with criminal records for meetings with unusual teams of law enforcement officers, including representatives from the police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as well as the United States attorney's office and the district attorney's office.

The men, often gang members or suspected drug or gun dealers, were warned that they were being watched and were told they would face serious prison time if they committed violent crimes with guns. In one publicized incident, a gang member with a felony conviction who ignored his warning was given a 10-year federal prison sentence for possession of a single bullet. It is a federal crime for a convicted felon to possess a gun.

"Part of the secret of Cease-Fire was that you have to follow up," Mr. Stern said. "You have to keep warning people, and if they commit more violence, you have to get them and give them long sentences to make an example of them."

One problem is that teenagers now have no memory of how tough Operation Cease-Fire was at its inception, Mr. Stern said, and they have no friends who were sent to prison as a result.

There is also a question about how effective the warnings have become. One of the two men arrested in the shooting of Trina Persad, Marquis Nelson, 23, was released from the Suffolk County prison in April after six months in custody for the illegal possession of a firearm.

Before his release, Mr. Nelson was warned by a team of law enforcement officers working in the prison as an offshoot of Operation Cease-Fire. A Cease-Fire team warned Mr. Nelson again six weeks before the shooting, Commissioner Evans said.

Asked about Mr. Nelson's case, Mr. Evans said, "There is no 100 percent guarantee that the warnings will work."

David Kennedy, a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who helped formulate the Boston plan, said the answer was that the Cease-Fire program had lost its way. "As it existed in 1996 or 1997, Cease-Fire is entirely gone," Mr. Kennedy said.

Instead of focusing on the most dangerous suspects, the warnings have been watered down and are being given indiscriminately to large groups like schools, Mr. Kennedy said, "like old-fashioned police work."

Mr. Evans strongly denied that.

Mr. Kennedy said he had been told that his participation was no longer welcome, as a result of envy by some law enforcement officers who wanted to claim credit for Boston's success.

Mr. Evans said the finger-pointing missed the larger point. Overall violent crime here is at its lowest level since 1971, and even the 66 homicides last year were fewer than in any year in the 70's or 80's.

"The Boston model still works," Mr. Evans said. "We just have to keep tweaking it."




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