A city's crime fighting falters

Urban Chronicle

Boston: A 10-year-old girl's death casts doubt on an approach once hailed as a miracle.

July 25, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

BALTIMORE - WHERE the death by drive-by shooting this week of 13-year-old Dwight Gilmore followed the wounding of six bystanders, four of them children - is not the only city where the shooting of an innocent child is crystallizing a city's concerns about crime.

Boston has been grappling with the aftermath of the fatal shooting June 29 of 10-year-old Trina Persad, who was killed by a stray bullet as she left a park in the city's Roxbury neighborhood in what police described as a dispute between rival gangs.

In particular, Bostonians are debating whether Trina's death symbolized the end of the "Boston Miracle" that saw annual homicides decline by 80 percent in the 1990s but turn sharply upward in the past 2 1/2 years.

Boston's approach to cutting crime has centered on creating a network of partnerships among police, probation officers and church and community leaders. It was contrasted - often favorably - with the approach pioneered by New York City, and adopted by Baltimore, which relied on aggressive policing and computerized tracking to achieve almost-as-impressive reductions in crime but which critics said also encouraged instances of brutality.

"Trina's death has jarred us all," Reba Gaskin-Danastorg, executive director of Boston's church-based, anti-crime Ten Point Coalition, said by telephone from her office this week. "How do we bring safety back to our parks? We have not come up with answers yet."

On a trip to Boston this month, I stopped by the park where Persad was shot.

Jermaine Goffigan Park is a nicely fenced area with a regulation basketball court and several benches around a set of swings and climbing equipment.

Several days after Trina's slaying, the kind of makeshift memorial that has become all too familiar in urban areas over the years was still there. There was a framed picture of the victim, this one with a smile and a pink sweat shirt, surrounded by stuffed animals, candles, flowers, ribbons and balloons.

On a sunny New England morning, the park was empty.

Luz Vasquez, a secretary and neighborhood resident, said she was keeping her three young children indoors.

"I'm not going to bring my kids here anymore," she said as she walked past the park. "No place is safe."

The park is named for a 9-year-old boy killed in a gang shooting in 1994.

That was when Boston's homicide total was in decline from its decade peak of 152 in 1990 to its low of 31 in 1999.

But Boston recorded 66 homicides last year and is on a similar pace for this year. Meanwhile, New York, with 14 times Boston's population, has had its homicide numbers hold roughly steady in the mid-600s for the past four years; they're down 12 percent this year over last.

Even before Trina's slaying, many had begun taking note of the rise in Boston's homicides.

In his farewell address in December, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani belittled the positive press given the "Boston model" and declared, "The reality is that the model for dealing with crime in New York City is the very, very best way to assure that you can keep a city safe."

And last month, Governing magazine ran a cover story that questioned whether Boston's approach "backfired."

Since Trina's slaying, the questioning has intensified.

Boston officials have blamed the increase in crime on a release of paroled convicts and a rise in the teen-age population.

In a commentary last week in The Boston Globe, David M. Kennedy, a Harvard University criminologist and architect of Operation Ceasefire, a key part of the Boston program, wrote, "The recent murder of Trina Persad ... was exactly the sort of violence Ceasefire was designed to prevent." Kennedy said the initiative was essentially "dead," a victim of excessive publicity, jealousy and the loss of key people, and argued it needed to be resuscitated.

If in fact the New York model is the best for producing sustained reductions in crime, that would be good news for Baltimore, whose police commissioner, Edward T. Norris, is an NYPD alum who has adopted the department's tactics. Indeed, until this week, Norris and Mayor Martin O'Malley have been promoting the city's two-year, 21 percent drop in violent crime.

Still, the New York-style approach has yet to work as well in Baltimore, especially in regard to homicides, which dropped just 16 percent between 1999 and last year and are now on a pace to exceed last year's total of 256.

For Baltimore, the lessons go beyond choices of strategy. Baltimore has three times the homicide rate of Boston, 39.3 homicides per 100,000 people vs. 11.2. New York's rate is 8.

There would be dancing in the streets if Baltimore, with a population just 60,000 greater than Boston's, had the number of homicides Boston had at its peak.

What the "Boston model" seems to show is that once crime is driven down, by whatever method, people expect it to stay down.

Especially when the alternative involves children getting shot on the street.

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