Youth gun deaths in Boston:
little more than a hill of beans

Wide range of players involved in strategic intervention effort

A coordinated effort by local, state and Federal law enforcement agencies against youth-gang violence and gun trafficking in Boston is being credited for a sharp plunge in the number of firearms-related homicides of young people age 24 and under and a drop in overall gang violence.

Homicide rates for the 24-and-under group are down by two-thirds from 1990-95’s mean annual rate of 26 victims, according to a report released last month by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where researchers are assessing the impact of local efforts to stem gun violence.

Last year’s nine victims, the report added, represented a 65-percent reduction from the mean and a 71-percent reduction from the number of gunfire murder victims in the same age group in 1995.

As important, the city did not have a single juvenile homicide victim under age 17 in the 16 months between July 1995 and November 1996.

“That package of interventions, which were quite deliberately put into place by the authorities in Boston, has apparently resulted in the homicide reductions we’re seeing here, which are extraordinary, very quick, very large, and very dramatic,” said David M. Kennedy, a senior researcher with the Kennedy School’s criminal justice policy program, who helped develop the effort known as Ceasefire.

“We seem to be turning the tide on youth violence,” said Jeff Roehm, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms’ Boston field division, and a key player in the Ceasefire effort. “I can see the pride that radiates from our agents when they’re out there and they see the benefits.”

The package, parts of which have been phased in since the early 1990s but which was fully implemented just last year, includes:

A focus on gun-trafficking to and from gang-involved youth;

A comprehensive and immediate interagency response to gang violence;

Explicit warnings to gangs that violence will bring a swift response from law enforcement;

Urging gangs to explore non-violent means of resolving conflicts, and

Preventing and snuffing out outbreaks of gang violence before they become deadly.

The effort, Kennedy added, is a model for the Youth Crime-Gun Interdiction Initiative announced by President Clinton last June, which is being implemented in 16 cities.

Among the agencies with key roles in the strategy are the Boston Police Department; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office; the state probation, parole and youth services departments, and the Boston Community Centers’ streetworkers, with support from the state Attorney General’s Office, the Boston School Police and others.

The program, an example of the partnership between law enforcement and academia that can result in “smart policing,” is built upon homicide studies conducted by Harvard researchers, who found that killings among Boston young people were largely a gang problem involving repeat offenders. Using a data base of all Boston homicide victims under 24 during a five-year period, they found that victims and killers alike had long criminal records and were well known to law enforcement.

“Seventy-five percent of both victims and offenders had prior arraignments in Massachusetts, about half had previously been on probation,” Kennedy told Law Enforcement News. “One-fifth had been in jail or prison, and 25 percent of the known youth homicide offenders had actually committed murders while on probation. They also had very high rates of arrest for violent crimes and property crimes, and disorder, weapons and drug offenses.”

With so many offenders known to authorities because of the high rates of crime they generated, the cycle of violence “seemed like something we could interrupt,” said Kennedy. “The basic notion came to me that because these individuals and groups were well known to the authorities...and were on probation and parole, it ought to be possible to exact a very stiff price when they committed serious violence.”

The project entered a crucial phase last spring, Kennedy said, when representatives of the agencies involved began warning gangs, through formal meetings and informal street contacts, that they were adopting a zero-tolerance approach to violence  a stance they reiterate whenever violence or rumors of “throwdowns” flare up.

“When we go into a neighborhood, our message is very clear: If you want our operation to stop in your neighborhood, the gangs have got to put down the guns and stop shooting,” said Lieut. Gary French, a 15-year BPD veteran who heads the multiagency Youth Violence Strike Force.

In August, authorities made good on the threat when members of the Intervale Posse, a notorious Roxbury crack-dealing gang, were taken into custody “en masse” on Federal narcotics charges. Since then, gangs appear to have been heeding warnings that to avoid arrest, “leave your guns at home,” said Kennedy.

“They did; it’s really quite remarkable,” he added. “We get feedback from gang outreach workers who work very closely with these kids that the temperature on the streets is going down, that this may well be a sustainable reality.”

Components of the project were already in place before the entire package was fully implemented last spring, noted Kennedy, but efforts weren’t always coordinated between agencies. The Department of Probation’s “Night Light” program has been in existence since 1992.

The Youth Violence Strike Force, whose 65 members include city, school, transit, housing, and state police, has also been in operation for the past few years, working closely with DEA and ATF, whose Boston offices also had been focusing on stopping the flow of drugs and guns that fuels youth violence.

“Almost everything that ended up in the large strategic package, people were doing already,” Kennedy observed. “It just wasn’t focused and combined with communication and a standard-setting procedure.”

Data compiled and analyzed by the Harvard researchers has helped agencies to pinpoint trouble spots and direct resources accordingly, officials told LEN. It showed police that Boston has about 1,300 gang members, mostly in Dorchester and Mattapan sections, who are responsible for at least 60 percent of the city’s youth homicides. About 350 are hard-core members, and most of them are known to police and other partner agencies, said Lieutenant French.

“Our feeling is that if we can take out these 350 hard-core members  take them off the streets or change their behavior  we can affect the behaviors of all of the fringe members,” he told LEN.

Figures generated by the ATF’s effort to trace every gun uncovered by the Boston Police Department also has been used by the researchers to help authorities discover sources of illegal weapons and gun-trafficking patterns. The information was instrumental in helping ATF break up gun-trafficking rings that originated not only in Massachusetts, but also in Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia and Mississippi, said Philip Tortorella, a supervisory special agent with the ATF in Boston.

The research team headed by Kennedy “was able to show us where we needed to concentrate our efforts, put it on a map and showed us where to deploy our resources,” said Tortorella. “And that’s really important because you have limited resources and you need to put them where they work. We’re not spinning our wheels.”

As academics, Kennedy explained that the researchers went beyond the common academic practice of simply looking at the data and conducting evaluations. “We worked side by side with the practitioners to figure out what was happening out there and what might be effective,” he noted.

Officials of the participating agencies also agreed that communication is crucial to the effort’s success. “The players involved in this violence are known to law enforcement and the social service agencies in the city of Boston. That’s how come the partnerships between us are so important  we have to communicate,” said French.

“Six years ago, police didn’t talk to probation and probation didn’t talk to police. Police would arrest the kid, come in for court, testify and walk out the door. We’d get the kid and never talk to police,” recalled Bill Stewart, a 20-year Probation Department veteran who goes on rounds about twice a week with Boston police Det. Robert Fratalia to check on juvenile probationers.

When Night Light started in 1992, not only were many of the youngsters on Stewart’s caseload surprised to see him accompanying cops on their rounds, so were other officers, some of whom half-kiddingly asked him if he were trying to get himself killed. “Let’s say [the idea] was received with mixed reviews,” he said dryly.

Parents turned in drugs and guns to Stewart and his police partners, while several young probationers wanted on outstanding charges, including murder, have surrendered to them peacefully. Compliance with probation curfews is probably about 75 percent, compared to less than 50 percent five years ago, he said.

“There’s been a lot of cooperation by everybody,” said Stewart. “The police have been great. We’ve broken down the paradigms of our roles.”

It’s no longer unusual for a Boston police officer, a state police officer and an ATF agent riding together to respond to gang-related incidents, noted French, who credits Police Commissioner Paul Evans with promoting interagency cooperation in the effort.

“Historically, all three agencies have not communicated with each other very well,” he pointed out. “Now we have members from each of them riding in the same car, talking about the same problem and working on the same mission.”

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Published in Law Enforcement News
Jan 15, 1997. 
© 1997, LEN Inc.  [ Subscribe.]