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Looking back to move forward

Looking back to move forward
“Well, when shootings increase, homicides are not far behind.”

Looking back to move forward

Residents of Boston’s high-crime areas have an understandable concern about policies that will make life safer in their neighborhoods. However, one issue should be abundantly clear: The primary job of the police is not to prevent crime. It is to apprehend those who are believed to be criminal perpetrators.

Under the American system of justice, the police have limited authority to make a pre-emptive strike to prevent a crime from being committed. They cannot enter a residence without a warrant issued by a judge, and they cannot stop and frisk an individual without complying with the requirements of proper cause. The police usually go into action after a crime has occurred.

An effective crime prevention strategy must be based upon a policy of the mayor. There is an irrefutable way to determine whether the policy works. It is only necessary to note whether the statistics on crime and violence have gone up or down. One of the most important tasks of the police is to maintain such convivial community relations that citizens will come forward with information when crimes occur.

African American citizens and ministers have become concerned about a 37.5 percent spike in shootings through the first five months of 2009 over the same period last year. The number of shootings rose from 80 to 110. The Boston crime rate has been a problem for the last 20 years.

Former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn became concerned when homicides climbed in 1990, up to 116, according to data from a 20-year study of homicides in Boston prepared by the staff of City Councilor Chuck Turner. Of that year’s victims, 69 were 25 years old or younger, and a disproportionate number were African American.

Flynn inherited intense racial hostility in Boston when he became mayor in 1984. Between 1980 and 1983, the police had gunned down several blacks — Levi Hart, Braxton Mitchell, Alex Valentin, Mario Velez and Elijah Pate. Police Commissioner Joseph M. Jordan always backed his officers in the shootings, had a reputation for being hostile to blacks and was suspected of being involved in the city’s growing drug traffic.

Flynn acted forcefully. He paid the successfully litigated wrongful death claims against the city, replaced Jordan as police commissioner with Francis “Mickey” Roache, and instructed Roache to integrate the force. Roache appointed Richard Cox, Pervis Ryan, James Claiborne and Joseph Carter to the command staff and named William Celester deputy superintendent and Area B commander.

The Boston Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Wayne Budd, and the Boston Federal Drug Task Force cooperated to arrest Darryl “God” Whiting, the major drug dealer operating in the Orchard Park area. In 1990, Robert Lewis Jr., who is now vice president for operations at the Boston Foundation, was a city employee. He organized for Flynn a program of street workers to engage youth and prevent them from taking over the drug distribution apparatus abandoned when Whiting and his crew were jailed. Members of the Nation of Islam also worked closely with the police commissioner to prevent youth violence.

The murder count for Bostonians age 25 or younger fell from a high of 69 in 1990 to 17 in 1997, and it stayed in that range through 2000, the period of “The Boston Miracle.” Then the numbers began to move up again. Mayor Thomas M. Menino had laid off the street workers and rejected donated funds to finance the program. Then he failed to implement the recommendations of the 1992 St. Clair Commission to establish an effective citizen police review board. This is one of the issues that caused the police to lose the trust and cooperation of the black community.

Between 1998 and 2008, there were 303 murders in Area B, which includes Roxbury, Mission Hill, Mattapan and North Dorchester, according to Turner’s homicide study. There have been no arrests made in 194 of those murders. This is a closure rate of only 36 percent. Now a perpetrator has a 2-to-1 chance of pulling off a murder in the black community without apprehension.

Professors James A. Fox and Marc L. Swatt of Northeastern University published a report last December, entitled “The Recent Surge in Homicides Involving Young Black Males and Guns.” Their conclusion suggests that youth violence among blacks “… could worsen in the years ahead as the population of at-risk youth (blacks and Hispanics) grows …” One must wonder whether Menino would be up to the challenge.