A 'high touch' police breakthrough

November 26, 1997|By Neal R. Peirce

BOSTON -- New York, with its pioneering, highly successful use of computers to target and attack hot crime spots, is garnering recognition as the ''high tech'' capital of American police reform in the '90s.

But mark down Boston as the ''high touch'' capital of new police tactics. The cops here have cultivated such a close -- and rare -- collaboration between police and probation officers, church and neighborhood groups that no juvenile has been shot to death for three years running.

Not that there's anything soft about the message Boston police telegraph to youth gang leaders in any neighborhood with brewing conflict: Stop the shooting and gun toting, right now. Make a nonviolence pact, forsake guns and ammunition. Or we'll throw the book at you -- state and federal indictments, rapid prosecution, jail terms. And don't kid yourselves: we know who you are.

Critical difference

It's the knowing that makes the critical difference. The Boston police have formed a network of amazingly close, day-to-day ties with probation and parole officials, state and federal prosecutors, other city agencies and regional police departments.

It's a massive cultural turnaround from the past, when Boston-area law enforcement agencies operated -- in the words of James Jordan, director of strategic planning for the Boston police -- like independent powers, ''in fragmented, stovepipe style -- verticalized missions.''

Now the agencies are constantly comparing notes on problem neighborhoods and problem cases. Probation officers join police nightly visits to the streets and to the homes of offenders on probation. A youngster into guns and drugs loses his anonymity, his ''wiggle room,'' notes Mr. Jordan: ''He sees a cop and can figure the officer knows his probation history.''

Under Chief Paul Evans, the Boston police have also decentralized decision-making to relatively small districts, each with a captain who's free to draw up a crime-fighting plan to match the area's special needs.

But internal police shifts tell only half the story. To cope with a virtual epidemic of drugs, guns and gangs, Mr. Evans opened lines of communication to community groups, youth service agencies and the black clergy.

It was a remarkable move for a chief who grew up in South Boston, an area that back in the '70s was one of America's most explosive racial tinderboxes. But Mr. Evans formed close ties to such groups as the Ten Point Coalition of black clergy. Soon came improved police relations with Nation of Islam leaders as well.

Boston's Urban League, the YMCAs, the Boys and Girls Club of Roxbury and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative -- inspiring scores of young African-Americans to clean streets and design parks -- have been among other black-led organizations working to calm tensions.

The point of mutual community-police concern: to prevent firearm violence and killings. Research by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Northeastern University showed what community-level leaders already knew: The victims and perpetrators of shootings and assaults were often the very same youth. And a quarter of shooters turned out to have been on probation.

Trust developed between police and the community when they agreed on the mutual goal of saving kids from crime and potential death. Indeed, once the police conveyed the prevention message, made it clear they weren't out to harass and lock up kids unnecessarily, then families of the youth began to cooperate with the community policing intelligence network.

Huge challenge

Obviously, there's still a huge challenge in finding opportunities, TC real jobs for the youth growing up in bleak, desperately poor neighborhoods.

But Boston's suppression of violence is working. By late autumn 1990, Boston had close to 130 homicides. Last week, the 1997 figure was 38.

There's lots in common among reform-minded police departments across America. They all have a base of community policing. They're all delegating authority to fairly small police districts.

There are differences: Boston, for example, limits zero-tolerance crackdowns on minor offenses to high-crime neighborhoods; in New York the police crack down on minor offenses nearly everywhere. And Boston's work with minority communities is much deeper and systematic.

What's clear in all the reform cities, high-tech and high-touch alike, is that their shared focus on crime prevention has produced results.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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