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Boston Strategy
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The Situation in 1990
Changing Perceptions
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Based on such changing perceptions, key alliances formed in 1992, as police officers in the gang unit, probation officers, Streetworkers, and the core group of African-American clergy in the TenPoint Coalition acknowledged each other and began, cautiously, to collaborate. Out of that collaboration emerged consensus that their efforts to stop the killing should focus on providing assistance and alternatives for the gang members who would take them, and on getting those who persisted in violence off the streets. Just as important, there emerged the trust and mutual respect that enabled a collective will to act decisively on the basis of that shared understanding. The partnership and its capacity to effect change expanded significantly in 1993 and 1994, with the creation of the multi-agency Youth Violence Strike Force and the addition of several new, high-level participants: Boston mayor Tom Menino, police commissioner Paul Evans; U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Don Stern; and Harvard professor David Kennedy. From that expanded group came Operation Cease Fire, launched in May 1996, and the concept of a strategy to prevent youth violence.

Working Partnerships

Building on contacts made in the aftermath of the Morningstar Incident, an active partnership arose between the clergy of the TenPoint Coalition and the Streetworkers. It was an obvious fit: the Streetworkers had connections to kids who needed resources; the churches had the resources and the desire to reach those same kids. For example, in one instance, a Streetworker sought grief counseling for some young men he was working with. Ray Hammond went to talk to them, in a pizza shop, and out of that grew a regular discussion group at Hammond’s church. "We had a van, we had space, and he had kids," recalled Hammond. "It was a nice match." Sometimes the churches would raise money to help a Streetworker provide assistance in a rent emergency; and when the clergy wanted to participate in negotiating a truce between gangs, Streetworkers helped them make the necessary contacts. But some of the most critical support from the churches, recalled Streetworker Tracy Litthcut, was some of the most mundane: "They were the only ones to give us vans to transport these bad kids." And they provided tickets for events, "Because even though these kids are carrying guns and selling drugs, they’re nothing but kids. You have to give them an opportunity to be a kid again, to see what a kid’s life is like. And we didn’t have that from anybody but the ministers."

In the wake of the Morningstar Church invasion, connections also began to form between the TenPoint Coalition and the police—perhaps the most unlikely alliance, given the stormy history between the BPD and the black community. Probation officers, now working with both groups, initially helped to bring them together. It also made a big difference that they were both working out in the streets at night. "The only other adult males that we ran into out on the street at night were the TenPoint Coalition," recalled Robert Merner. "So, when we were up at 12:30 or 1:00 in the morning chasing drug dealers [in] areas that were hot, it would be nothing for us to be coming one way and see guys dressed in black walking the other way—Ray Hammond, Gene Rivers, and others. And naturally you’d stand there, and you’d start talking with them." In addition to those informal connections, in April 1993, the TenPoint Coalition launched a more public collaboration, with its first annual Police and Youth Leadership Awards for "exemplary police and youth leaders." This was a significant gesture: just five months before, the Coalition had organized the Police Tribunal, a neighborhood forum for public hearings on charges of police misconduct. But, as they had become more active out in the street, the leaders of the faith community had begun to recognize that they shared a common goal with many police officers—keeping kids alive. They had also recognized, and began to acknowledge publicly, that some of the young men in gangs simply could not be saved on the street; they had to be arrested and removed from the community.

Continuing organizational change within the police department supported the gang unit’s efforts to become more collaborative with outsiders. In the fall of 1992, the BPD and the Boston Management Consortium launched an in-service training program on community policing—a week-long course that everyone on the force passed through. On the final day of each week, members of the Streetworkers program came in to co-teach the course and to answer questions. "At the time," said Streetworker Ernest Hughes, "the police weren’t recognizing us in any way, because they didn’t know who we were." Exposure through the course changed that. In that context, the gang unit and the Streetworkers began to share information and actively support each other. That was a turning point for the Streetworkers, who had tended to see the situation only from the kids’ perspective. "Things that we thought we knew," reflected Litthcut, "we didn’t know fully." The trust they built up with police and probation greatly strengthened the Streetworkers’ ability to create opportunities for gang members to make different choices, and they became important players in the coalition that was emerging on the front lines of work on the street.

The changing environment within the BPD also helped open the door to another innovation—the Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF). This 15-person sub-group of the gang unit, created by special order of Commissioner Bratton in 1993, included personnel from a variety of agencies dealing with youthful offenders: Massachusetts State Police; Boston Housing Police; Boston School Safety Services; the Massachusetts Department of Probation; the Department of Youth Services (DYS); the Massachusetts Department of Corrections; the U.S. Attorney’s Office; the Office of the Suffolk County District Attorney; and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF); along with members of the BPD gang unit. The history of relations among these groups was more one of turf battles than of cooperation. But, noted Paul Joyce, head of the new unit, its members were all personally committed to doing things differently. Each brought a caseload of youthful offenders from his own agency, and they found in many instances they were dealing with the same kids.

The mission of the YVSF starting out was to develop, in Joyce’s words, "a very focused approach to dealing with gang violence." This initially meant just getting the most violent youth off the streets and into jail by following up some of the 26,000 outstanding arrest warrants in the city, in particular those of DYS, whose cases included most of the shooters and the victims in youth homicides. It was also a fully collaborative approach, noted Joyce. "We sat down with everybody, from the head of DYS to the area supervisor, to the workers, to tell them what we could offer them. And we got their support. That’s how we approached every agency that we worked with." The YVSF got support for its approach, because its message was compelling: "We want to work on your behalf. You have twenty kids whom you want arrested for violent crimes. We’ll go after those kids. All we ask is are these the impact kids out on the street? If we take them off, will we be making a difference?" In its first year, the YVSF cleared more than 1,500 outstanding warrants. It also began to develop the concept of a focused crackdown on violence-prone groups, which would later evolve into a full-blown strategy of deterrence.

By the mid-1990s, all of these working relationships began to add up to a powerful combination of forces, in part because they all helped each other to do their jobs better. As current gang unit chief Gary French asserted, "We all increase the credibility of our agencies by working in partnership." For example, while they supported the arrest of some offenders, both the clergy and the Streetworkers strengthened their ability to intervene with the police or probation on behalf of others; and that enhanced their influence with kids on the street. At the same time, they provided critical support to the police in their stepped-up effort to arrest the most violent kids—for example, by making it no longer acceptable to "play the race card" on this issue. The growing trust among the partners was based in large part on concrete actions, which demonstrated commitment. Said police officer Merner: "The biggest thing with the groups that we worked with—the Streetworkers, the clergy, the cops, and probation—was, if you were called on, you were expected to deliver something." Yet the bonds were also based on something more intangible—simply seeing the same faces on the street, at crime scenes, and at funerals. "It got to a point of mutual respect," said Streetworker Litthcut, "because we were all out there when it was bad."

New Players

The alliances that had formed spontaneously among the people who were "out there" on the front lines settled fairly quickly into effective working relationships, but they became much more effective when joined by powerful new partners. One was Tom Menino, who was elected Mayor in November 1993, after serving several months as acting mayor. A strong supporter of community policing, Menino was also committed to using the resources of city government aggressively in the effort to get the gang violence problem under control. One of his first actions was to inquire what the Boston Streetworker program needed to work more effectively. "I told [the mayor], ‘We need jobs; we need transportation; we need a budget to be able to buy things, to provide families and kids and my workers with certain supplies to do things,’" recalled Tracy Litthcut. Menino provided. The Streetworker program got a $20,000 annual budget, and its newly appointed administrator, Eleanor Reisenberg, "provided vans out of the woodwork. We had over twenty something vans to pick from," said Litthcut. "So we didn’t have to worry about providing transportation for these kids."

Paul Evans, sworn in as Boston Police Commissioner in February 1994, also came to office with a commitment to community policing, which he hoped to deepen and expand on the basis of three key principles: partnership, problem solving, and prevention. Inside the BPD, Evans supported continuing cultural change, in particular moving away from hierarchy and giving greater voice and influence to people working on the front lines. One of the first things he did was to get out into the neighborhoods to talk to cops in the precincts. Recalled Evans: "I went to [places] where we had the violence problem, and I said, what do we need? I was fully expecting to hear ‘more cops, more tough judges,’ but the cops said, ‘We need jobs and alternatives for these kids.’ These were the gang cops! This was informal leadership saying, ‘We’re going to do things differently in order to reach these kids; we’re going to do cutting edge enforcement.’" Deeply impressed, Evans did what he could to strengthen their efforts. He also actively supported Operation Night Light by arranging for federal grant money to pay for police overtime and make it a full-time program.

Subsequently, Evans continued to provide high-level support, in part by developing community policing in a strategic way. In April 1994, he invited hundreds of community groups to participate in a year-long process of strategic planning, precinct by precinct, so that the specific issues and needs in each neighborhood could be addressed. Evans helped to ensure the participation of key community groups and social-service agencies in the strategic planning process by providing grant money to support them. This initiative led ultimately to a system of "neighborhood policing" based on a dramatic decentralization of police operations and funding that made precinct commanders active collaborators with local communities and accountable to them.

Like Evans, Don Stern, who became U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts in late 1993, took up his post hoping to make a significant impact on the quality of life in Boston and willing to do some things differently in order to do so. He began by taking the unusual step of visiting Evans and asking the police commissioner what role the federal justice department might play in helping to reduce the level of violence in the city. "It was not self evident what the federal contribution could be in a situation like that," recalled Stern, "because most crime, including violent crime, is handled and prosecuted at the local level." Following on that first conversation, Stern began to educate himself about the issues around youth violence, getting out of his office and talking to the cops in the gang unit and YVSF, to Hammond and others in the TenPoint Coalition, to Streetworkers, probation officers, young assistant district attorneys. "I wasn’t out there at two in the morning walking the streets with the gang members, so I had to rely on others to filter through what they observed and what they went through," said Stern. "And I developed a sense of trust, the more I talked to people and got to know them—had a cup of coffee with them. That’s the kind of trust which really goes a long way." Through his relationship building, Stern crafted a critical supporting role for federal law enforcement agencies in Boston’s response to gang violence.

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