To reduce homicides, Boston fights back

Crime: As Baltimore wrestles with its murder toll, a northern counterpart draws on the clergy and civic leaders to help curtail violence.

August 30, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

BOSTON - The mayor has extended summer recreation and job programs to keep children off the street. Church leaders are marching through neighborhoods. And the police commissioner has summoned a battalion of federal and state officers to help patrol the city.

All this because Boston's annual homicide count has reached 46.

"Once you get a certain perception on the street that carrying weapons is OK, you've got a problem," says the Rev. Ray Hammond, the chairman of the Ten Point Coalition, a group of religious leaders who organized to fight crime. "We don't want that to happen."

For those looking on from Baltimore - where nearly 190 homicides so far this year have produced little uproar - the bold action offers a glimpse into what another city will tolerate. It also illustrates a different model for battling violent crime, a plan of action based largely on community outreach.

"Police can't do it alone," says Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino. "It's most effective when people come together to solve their own problems."

Boston and Baltimore are about the same size - 590,000 people compared to 650,000, respectively, according to the last census. They're both old seaports with top hospitals.

But they are vastly different cities. The average Bostonian makes significantly more money. Like most cities, Boston has a drug problem, but nothing like that in Baltimore, a city once dubbed nation's heroin capital. The housing problem in Boston isn't a mass of vacant rowhouses, as it is in Baltimore. Instead, Bostonians struggle to keep housing prices affordable.

Different expectations

And then there are the different expectations, ones created during the early 1990s when this city reduced violence so drastically that residents dubbed it the "Boston Miracle." In 1999, Boston had 31 homicides, fewer than in any city of comparable size.

"The better you get, the higher you set the bar," says Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole. "Boston has had such success in the past that our tolerance level is very low."

Before the Miracle, killing peaked in 1990 at 152 homicides. In 1992, a man was stabbed nine times and killed inside a church while attending a funeral for a drive-by shooting victim.

Crime wasn't the only problem. There was a distrust for the police that climaxed in 1994 when heavily armed police raided the wrong apartment and handcuffed a 75-year-old minister, causing him to collapse and die of a heart attack.

Boston's solution was community policing. It developed neighborhood anti-crime groups, and police focused on outreach. Teams of police, city officials, clergy, community leaders and academics started calling meetings of so-called "impact players," demanding that those young men accept help finding jobs and getting off drugs or expect to be locked up. The resulting mantra that Police Superintendent Paul Joyce repeated last week was, "We can be tough - if we have to."

Grove Hall, a predominantly black area in this largely white city, is an example of what went right. When the founder of Project Rebuild and Improve Grove Hall Together attempted to call the group's first meeting a little more than a decade ago, gang members stood outside, scaring away all but a few people. Now the umbrella organization holds meetings that typically draw as many as 120 people, says organizer Michael Kozu.

The 20,000-person community of Victorian homes and small brick apartment buildings displays more "Getting the job done" signs marking city projects than vacancies. It has a new middle school, community center and grocery store.

Though not every part of the city boasts the success of Grove Hall, to a large degree, the city's trouble went away. Despite a few surges, it stayed away.

Baltimore's struggle

There has been no similar miracle in Baltimore. The number of homicides peaked in 1993 at 353. Mayor Martin O'Malley took office in 1999 after promising to reduce the annual body count to 175 by 2002. In 2000, the number dipped below 300 for the first time in a decade, but last year it was 271, and this year is on pace to be about the same.

O'Malley says the current homicide number is both his proudest accomplishment and greatest frustration. Baltimore's biggest struggle isn't fighting drugs or violence, but rather expectations, he says, adding that Baltimore has just recently stopped shrugging its shoulders over the homicide totals.

"We had allowed ourselves by 1999," O'Malley says, "to become the most violent and addicted city in America. Fortunately, Boston had never allowed itself to become that."

Its homicide total solidly below 100 for more than a decade, this summer was supposed to be Boston's season in spotlight. As host of the Democratic National Convention, it would watch a native son accept the party's presidential nomination. That event was carried off without the fears of terrorism becoming realities.

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