Boston's Effort to Cut Crime, Build Trust Could be Model for Dallas, Tex.
BOSTON - "Put the gun down!"
The command to the band of teenagers fell on deaf ears. "Put it down!" Shots already had been fired, but unlike some situations these young men have faced, the danger this time was fantasy.
Clutching colorful pistols, their swagger and baggy clothes stuffed into blue-gray jumpsuits, the inner-city kids were zipping up for a few rounds of paintball in a working-class suburb. The gunplay was a break from their after-school church-based program of study and support for teens who've brushed against trouble with real weapons or drugs or petty crimes.
"Don't pull the trigger yet," admonished the group's leader, Dexter Sandiford, 29, a gangster turned mentor who never shied from pulling a trigger when drugs were bringing him $1,000 a day at his young charges' age.
The Brighter Horizon youth program in the Dorchester district is one patch in a fabric of criminal justice/community collaboration that's been stitched together for more than a decade across this city of steeples and stone walls.
From the killing grounds of the program coordinator's youth to the padded obstacles of an indoor shooting range, the much acclaimed and still evolving anti-crime partnerships here may have lessons for other places, including Dallas as it searches for a new police chief.
"A lot of cities just can't fathom how to get that cooperation going," said Lt. Paul Fitzgerald of the Youth Violence Strike Force, Boston's anti-gang unit. "This is what saved us."
After a couple of tries, Mr. Sandiford was saved, too. "Sometimes I had shootouts three days out of the week," he said. "I came a long way. Now I'm trying to get these kids to go the same way."
If Mr. Sandiford has come a long way since defying Boston police in the early 1990s, so has the department itself, which hit rock bottom about the same time, plagued by runaway crime rates and management problems and viewed with suspicion by residents.
Since then, the force has made the long, steady climb from universally maligned to a universal model, using cooperative strategies that linked law enforcement agencies and enlisted the help of churches, schools, community groups and businesses.
Together, they made the carrot and the stick bigger. With federal assistance, police and prosecutors worked hard to put away chronic offenders while launching a campaign with outreach workers and others to save younger offenders through jobs and mentoring.
Homicides, once fueled by youth violence, fell to 30-year lows by the late '90s. Meanwhile, levels of trust between officers and residents strengthened in the close-quartered city of 600,000, where about three-quarters of the young people are minorities.
"No one's gonna tell you anything if they don't trust you," said Officer Greg Brown, who builds trust where it's crucial - on the street. The 16-year veteran and original member of the gang unit patrols each night in plainclothes and a plain car.
He knows the gang-bangers and wannabes by name, personifying the community policing often credited with the city's turnaround. He has persuaded murder suspects to surrender and families to turn in sons to avoid more bloodshed.
And in a city that has done as much as any to inject police work with social work, he and other Bostonians say their efforts to extend an open hand alongside the law's clenched fist have paid off in ways they can see and in ways they'll never know.
"I'm affecting kids not just with handcuffs, but influencing them to go in the right direction," he said. "They may act tough out there among their boys, but nobody wants to get shot."
As in any major city, challenges abound for the so-called Boston miracle, a nickname that even boosters call an exaggeration. There's no magic, for example, for a justice system straining to deal with waves of inmates now being released after the '90s crackdown.
"The real miracle was not that kids stopped killing each other," said the Rev. Ray Hammond, chairman of the 10-Point Coalition, made up of black ministers whose support at a time of racial crisis helped legitimize police efforts. "The miracle was these diverse groups working together and building partnerships in ways they had not before. The key to public safety is partnership." Boston seemed an unlikely place for such policing improvements and the rising quality of life they seemed to bring.
"If that kind of close, cooperative relationship can be forged between a community and police department in Boston, which had a terrible history of race relations, it can be done anyplace," said Paul Grogan, head of the Boston Foundation, the region's leading charitable endowment. "It takes terrific leadership on all sides."
As the 1990s began, Boston and its police seemed out of control. A record 152 homicides, raging gangs and a number of race-related crises cast the department as inept opponents of minority neighborhoods.
The city drew national scorn after a white man falsely blamed a black attacker for his wife's death, prompting a roundup of black suspects. Violence reached a horrifying peak in 1992 when gang members burst into a church sanctuary during a rival's funeral and stabbed a teenager.
The turmoil within the department and the community's crumbling confidence were captured in a scathing outside review.
The outrage spawned reassessments and innovations that started sustained changes in the city's policing.
The job of top cop, known as police commissioner, soon went to transit police veteran William Bratton, who embraced the concept of community policing - improving the contacts between officers and the people they protect.
Although he quickly left to become New York's police chief, he installed some underpinnings for Boston's future success: delegating "real authority and accountability to the precinct level," as Mr. Grogan co-wrote in Comeback Cities, and employing an updated crime-tracking system called Compstat to improve police responses.
The department focused on suspects with felony warrants and went after supposed nuisance crimes, instigating a version of the "broken windows" approach. The policing theory holds that small disorders, like broken windows in a neglected neighborhood, allow criminal activity to fester, feeding a fear of crime and leading to more crimes; fix those windows, and the pattern can be reversed.
Into this changing mix stepped the new commissioner, Paul Evans, as bland as Mr. Bratton was colorful. Within weeks, a black minister died when a police drug raid mistakenly targeted his home.
Facing an angry and beleaguered city, Mr. Evans shouldered blame for the botched raid and pledged that his department would do whatever was necessary to earn back people's trust. The 1994 tragedy became a turning point.
"The police were so desperate, they were willing to try almost anything," said Dan Richardson, a neighborhood organizer for more than 40 years. "I don't think people believed that the police and neighborhoods could cooperate enough to make community policing work, but it has."
The department agreed to improve its training, management and internal affairs.
"We wanted reform," said Michael Kozu, who led a civil rights group and now helps run a neighborhood coalition. "It's important for the police to reach out to critics. They may not be saying what you want to hear, but they really know what's going on."
New initiatives took hold under the new commissioner as he delegated power - and responsibility - and moved the department past turf battles to an age of alliance with other jurisdictions, including probation and parole officers, prosecutors, state police, juvenile services and the FBI.
An idea called Operation Nightlight began modestly with a couple of probation officers riding with police to make surprise bed checks on offenders.
Just as the stepped-up warrant arrests often uncovered a bonus of illegal guns or drugs, the nighttime visits forced probationers to stay in line. The procedure, now standard across Massachusetts, has been replicated in other states.
Bill Stewart is one of the operation's originators.
In the first half of the '90s, he saw 65 of his young probationers killed. "There's something about seeing life flowing into a gutter on a nice spring day that stays with you," he said. "How much potential was lost?"
Commissioner Evans' three-pronged strategy balanced enforcement with collaboration and intervention during his near-decade on the job. The plan remade officers into members of a community-based team, even though police unions opposed some of the power shifting.
The intervention part was the most revolutionary. As cooperation began with black ministers and spread to include community groups and corporations, the department slowly reversed a historic hard-line stance against adolescents heading toward serious trouble.
It was an unprecedented move, offering young offenders a second chance in order to break a cycle that was producing criminals. The efforts accomplished something else: stripping anonymity from the city's criminal elements.
"We learned from our past failures," said police Superintendent Paul Joyce, who rose from the streets with the anti-gang unit and often uses the language of a street worker. "We don't seriously affect crime just by making arrests. We have to provide positive alternatives to young people.
"The proof is that 10 years later, we're still doing it."
A core initiative is Operation Ceasefire, where delegates from law enforcement face off with gang members already in the court system. The message: We're watching you. Services or surveillance, the choice is yours. In the metal and marble lobby of the 7-year-old police headquarters, video screens declare, "Our mission is neighborhood policing" over Boston's skyline.
With help from the state and city, the department's "Family Project" is examining whether police and service agencies should target families immersed in violence rather than individuals. One family, for example, has 36 members across four generations; more than half are in prison.
"This could be the next stage of community policing," Superintendent Joyce said.
Other measures focus on unsolved shootings and their potential for retaliation, and ballistics imaging, which searches for links between shootings.
None holds more urgency than the relatively new "re-entry programs" aimed at scores of felons returning to Boston's neighborhoods after doing their time. Panels from several agencies confront groups of 15 to 20 soon-to-be parolees, warning that they'll be monitored and offering services.
"You've had an opportunity to straighten yourself out, and now we're going to deal with you as a danger to the public," said Jeff Clifford, one of the prosecutors who ride weekly with police patrols under the team approach. He's always on call to dispatch legal advice about the state's strict gun laws and graduated crime categories that can enhance penalties for offenders.
The jury's still out on the effectiveness of re-entry programs for ex-convicts, but at least the view at street level improved substantially while they were away.
Safer neighborhoods attracted more urban investment. Many of the old tenement-style housing projects were rebuilt as townhouses. Private money and community development corporations refashioned whole blocks.
The last overgrown lots where Dorchester meets Roxbury, vacant reminders of the 1960s race riots, are finally disappearing. There's a new mall down the block, and Habitat for Humanity is building 23 homes across the street from a planned commercial building.
"It's about ownership," said John Barbour, a neighborhood advocate. "Where we came from, we're not willing to go again."
A particular point of pride is the new middle school nearby, the city's first in 36 years. That's where new police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole, the only woman to hold the post, chose to be sworn in last month, symbolizing solidarity with neighborhoods. She pledged to stick with community policing and programs.
Over the years, corporations and charitable groups also stayed with them. One alternative-to-crime model is a mentoring program by hometown John Hancock Financial Services that's shown the corporate world to about 400 inner-city students. They've praised the program for giving them experience and confidence - and even for keeping them alive.
Rolling past a vigil for a 14-year-old homicide victim one recent night, officers Greg Brown and Chris Bailey surveyed the shifting territory that complicates their jobs - the homecomings of old gang leaders, the rising tide of juveniles. Budget cuts have trimmed the force by about 150 officers to 2,100, and a recent surge in homicides could shove the city past last year's total of 40.
Through it all, coordination - between police units and the community - has made a huge difference, said Officer Bailey, his knit cap pulled down against the lingering New England winter. "And you have to get rid of the egos," his cohort added. "That's one of the biggest problems in law enforcement."
At a bus stop, they helped a transit officer arrest a drunk, then raced through the darkness to a drug and weapon bust. Boston's thin blue line is stretched but holding, they said, although every failure stings. Every murder. Every kid lured back by the thrill of drug money or enthralled by a gun.
In police work, the pipeline never empties, and the gang feuds never fade. "The older kids go to jail," said Officer Brown, "and the younger kids take up the beef."
Mark Buchanan, a 24-year officer who helped start the Brighter Horizon program, knows the challenges of keeping boys' misdemeanors from becoming felonies. Of eight older teens in the first group, "Only one didn't get locked up," he said. "You're not going to reach everybody."