Boston gang unit accepts the dangers

Officer's shooting no surprise to elite strike force

By Suzanne Smalley
The Boston Globe Staff 
Related story: Boston officer shot, injured, in gunfire exchange with gang member

BOSTON - When one of their own was shot by a reputed gang member, it came as no surprise to the Boston Police youth violence strike force.

The only shock was that it hadn't happened earlier.

After visiting Officer Stephen Romano at Boston Medical Center, where he was being treated for a gunshot wound in the side Wednesday night, about 15 strike force members huddled in their squad room and talked until nearly dawn about how cold and brazen the youths they confront on the streets are these days.

"A lot of guys are raising that concern, that some of these kids just don't care," said Lieutenant Michael Conley, commander of the unit, which includes 36 Boston officers and 17 state troopers. "A lot of these kids just feel so distant when you talk to them. They don't look beyond 18 years old sometimes. They really don't think about a future."

The gang unit, which was profiled earlier this year on "America's Most Wanted," is the elite of the Police Department and has its most dangerous job. The unit must keep track of warring gangs, which are becoming more active and are responsible for much of Boston's street violence.

With mug shots and license plate numbers and usually in plain clothes, officers in the gang unit search streets and back alleys to find and confront some of the city's most violent suspects. Last year, the unit seized nearly 25 percent of all guns taken off the street by Boston police, Conley said.

He said that it is possible that a new campaign to put more officers in violent hot spots, including the area where Wednesday night's shooting occurred, has stirred up tension with gang members who resent the near-constant police presence.

Conley said his officers accept the dangers. "These guys in this unit know that they're responsible for putting themselves on the line," he said yesterday.

Commissioner Edward F. Davis praised the unit yesterday for venturing into the most hazardous of places to make neighborhoods safer.

"Several people have said to me, 'How can you ask these officers to go in, when you know these people are armed?' " Davis said in an interview. "Well, that's what we do. You know what I mean? Who else is going to do it? The gang unit is charged with dealing with gangs. It's gangs that have the guns right now, so they're right in the middle of it."

In March, another gang unit officer, Rance Cooley, narrowly avoided being hit by gunfire.

Romano, 39, a gang unit member for about six years , is the first Boston officer to be shot in the line of duty since 2001.

He and two other officers he was patrolling with knew something was wrong when they saw Antonio Franklin in enemy gang territory. They had received intelligence that he might retaliate against a rival gang, police said. Franklin allegedly fired at Romano as the officers approached.

"Steve was very lucky last night and blessed that he was able to survive this incident, and I hope he's able to return back to work fully," said Officer Vance Mills, who has been friends with Romano for six years.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday that while he was alarmed that an officer had been shot, statistics show that overall violence in the city is down. There have been 23 homicides in the city this year, one more than last year. By May 13, there had been 84 nonfatal shootings, compared with 128 in the same period last year.

But the violence that the gang unit sees seems increasingly senseless, Conley said. Blood feuds develop over girls. Cousins by birth end up mortal enemies by gang.

"It's just these little vendettas over these foolish things that these kids end up killing each other over," Conley said.

And every day, he said, his officers must come to work and venture into the heart of the kill zone.

If officers know two gangs are on the prowl for each other, "they actually put themselves sometimes right in the middle, between the two warring parties, and that can be very dangerous," he said.

Conley cited recent intelligence that youths from Lucerne Street were planning to "shoot up" a rival gang on nearby Morse Street in Dorchester.

He said gang officers watched Morse Street until they saw Lucerne Street gang members in the area and then searched them and seized a gun.

Given the dangers gang officers face, relationships in the unit are extremely close.

"You can really see the unit pull together," Mills said as he made his way to Boston Medical Center to visit Romano.

Romano's colleagues planned to deliver dinner to his room last night from a high-end restaurant.

"It's kind of tough to see your partner lying on the ground shot," Conley said.

"Hospital food is hospital food, no matter where you go. . . . We'll probably get him something decent, like a dinner, a nice dinner. Not a sandwich or anything like that -- unless he wants it."

Copyright 2007 The Boston Globe

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