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

December 27, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

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.

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