Homicides on rise in Boston

City has had 73 slayings so far this year, but is still relatively safe compared with others its size


BOSTON -- When homicide rates soared in the early 1990s, this city crafted a "miracle" strategy that used intervention by law enforcement, faith-based groups and community organizations, all but eliminating killings committed by juveniles, and drastically lowering the overall rate.

The aggressive assault on street violence won national envy and emulation. Experts credit its success to hard work and highly focused determination, not divine intervention, but the method nonetheless became known across the country as the "Boston Miracle."

After a high of 150 killings in 1990, Boston recorded 31 homicides in 1999, when the joint approach was in full force. This year that figure has more than doubled, capped with five killings in less than a week recently and the discovery of a body stuffed in a chimney. The 73 slayings so far this year have left many to wonder: What happened to the Boston Miracle?

"It is getting to be more dangerous all the time. It is awful," said Peter Pater, 31, a recent holdup victim. "I don't know what is going on with all this killing. It's like nobody controls it."

Last month, Pater said, four men stuck a gun in his face as he left work at a convenience store in Dorchester, one of the city's worst-affected neighborhoods. "They took my money and my keys," he said. "At least they didn't take my life."

Only a few blocks away, four members of a band called Graveside were killed in the city's first quadruple homicide in 10 years. The mid-December shootings took place next door to the home of the Rev. Eugene Rivers III, a minister who has played a key role in the city's anti-violence program. Rivers' daughter was doing schoolwork when the gunfire erupted.

That episode was followed by a fatal stabbing, also in Dorchester. Boston Police Department spokesman Sgt. Thomas Sexton said about 40 percent of the city's violence occurs in one-half of one square mile in the area straddling Dorchester and Roxbury.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Report released last week shows that in the first six months of 2005, Boston had 29 homicides. In the same period, Baltimore recorded 137 killings; Cleveland had 55; Kansas City, Mo., had 56; and Phoenix had 106.

Compared with other cities its size, Boston (population 589,000) remains a relatively safe city, Sexton said. "But the community, the police and the public in general is outraged when we have one homicide," he said. "They should be. One is too many."

Sexton said violent crime had risen in Boston because of changing demographics. The city has seen a growth in the teenage population - youths who came of age with little fear of the consequences of street crimes. As many as one-third of the residents in the city's most perilous neighborhoods are between ages 5 and 17.

On top of that, state and federal crime-fighting funds have dried up, he said. Boston's innovative attempt to curtail urban violence has received no money from Washington since 1997. State funding also has decreased substantially, he said. The Police Department feels the squeeze, Sexton said: In five years, the number of officers has dropped from 2,200 to 2,000.

Larry Mayes, a top aide to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the miracle strategy needed a makeover. Young people on the streets of Boston think differently from the authorities who devised the anti-violence partnership, he said: "The kids are digital, and the adults are in analog. We've got to go digital. We've got to change the rules."

This month, Menino took a step in that direction by cracking down on the sale of T-shirts that read "Stop Snitching." Similar shirts and DVDs intended to intimidate witnesses were distributed in Baltimore last year.

Menino said the shirts were inappropriate at a time when the city's homicide rate was rising.

David Kennedy, one of the original architects of the anti-violence effort, said homicide had crept up in Boston because the program was not well enforced.

Elizabeth Mehren writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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