There were 5 shooting homicides in Boston in the first weekend of October. One of the five victims of these unrelated attacks was Jose Luis Phinn Williams, 67. “It’s too much happening in the community,” his sister, Rosa Phinn, told reporters. “Every single day we have people dying, people shot.”
Things weren’t always this bad. In the 1990s, the police prioritized community engagement over punitive enforcement. Collectively known as “Operation Ceasefire,” programs using enforcement mechanisms and social services to target gang youth reduced violence in the city to the point that there was a 29-month stretch at the turn of the century, known as “The Boston Miracle,” in which no teens were shot and killed in the city.
The peace was short-lived—in 2000, Ceasefire was discontinued. But as James Hills, a Leaderful Citizen in Boston who works under the hashtag #WeNeedToKnow, told me, “The city is familiar with the model that worked previously.”
Crime in Boston jumped after the program ended: youth homicides in Boston streets rose 160% in the following 6 years. Today, members of the Boston community are still wondering why the police won’t increase spending on community outreach. The department spends 300 times more on officers than it does on workers in the Boston Center for Youth and Families community programs, who are known as streetworkers ($318 million, as against just over a million dollars).
The top 20 highest-paid employees in the city are all employed by the police department, as reported in the Boston Business Journal; the highest-paid public worker in the city, Police Captain Haseeb Hosein, made $366,232.65 in 2017. For context, the highest-paid of the streetworkers, Jamaine Gaitor, earned $47,406.41. Even Mayor Walsh, at $175,000 a year, makes far less than many members of the police department.
City activist Monica Cannon Grant, founder and CEO of the Violence in Boston nonprofit, believes that the motivation for the city’s disinvestment in preventative crime solutions is all about cash. Grant also told me that, in her view, Mayor Marty Walsh is in control of too many aspects of city management. Boston is wasting money on proposals that have proven ineffective in solving the violence—including dumping money into the city’s police force.
“We have an overly funded police department that doesn’t solve crime,” said Grant.
James Hills, too, said that the city’s funding priorities demonstrate an inadequate commitment to reducing violence. Mayor Walsh ran on a platform of peace in city streets, but if he doesn’t back it up with funding, those promises will just be empty words.
“There needs to be an investment made by leadership and elected officials to remedy this issue, and we have not heard from them,” said Hills.
In the first quarter of 2018, homicides were on the rise. Law enforcement appears incapable of dealing with the issue; the Boston Police Department solves non-fatal shootings in the city at a rate of only 4 percent, and fatal shootings at a barely better rate of 15%. But the arrest rate is falling in Boston homicides, even as killings are increasing.
Requests for comment to the mayor’s office went unanswered. The Boston Police Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Boston’s problem with gun violence underscores the city’s long history of racial discontent, which goes back decades; it’s part of the city’s DNA, mythologized by film studios and authors who mine the city’s gritty persona for thrills.
That fictional narrative of Boston—a working-class city where crime is a way of life and gangsters are semi-samurai, bound by a code of honor—has no basis in reality. In truth, Boston has deep-seated issues of racial violence and bias incommensurate with the city’s melodramatic portrayal in films like The Departed and the books of Dennis Lehane. Rather, Boston is a city divided by class, education, and race; a place where some lives matter more than others, and inequality leads directly to the chaos of gang violence, and to indiscriminate and random killings.
The reality isn’t reflected in how the violence is treated by police and the public, however. And it’s more than just a problem for Boston: decades of American media have fed the perception that crime on city streets is either the natural behavior of brutish gangs or honorable duels between members of the modern version of ronin. That these two very different visions of street violence are highly racialized need hardly be mentioned; that fear of the former is used by police to justify ever-increasing levels of punitive behavior against marginalized populations should be similarly obvious.
Yet the more police departments choose harsh punishments over promising alternatives, the more entrenched street violence remains in cities across the country. A July Washington Post report found that, nationally, police have failed to make an arrest in 26,000 murders in the last decade through 2017. The race of the victims matters—police arrested someone in 63% of murders when the victim was white, compared to 47% of murders when the victim was black. But even in that national context, Boston stood out: “No major U.S. city had a wider gap in arrest rates for white and black victims than Boston…. where the killings of white residents are solved at twice the rate of black victims.”
“I don’t think that black death motivates same response that white death does,” said Jamarhl Crawford, creator and publisher of Blackstonian. The emphasis on white victims, in Boston and around the country, makes for unequal outcomes.
Back in the 90s, buy-in from disparate elements in the community ranging from churches to law enforcement helped Ceasefire work to reduce violence, according to advocates like Northeastern University Criminology Professor Anthony Braga, whose May 2008 Harvard University report, written with University of Albany Criminal Justice Professor David Hureau and Harvard Sociology Professor Christopher Winship, credits the program’s interagency approach for the “Boston Miracle.” (Braga did not reply to a request for comment.)
“The well-known ‘Operation Ceasefire’ initiative was an interagency violence prevention intervention that focused enforcement and social service resources on a small number of gang involved offenders at the heart of the city’s youth violence problem,” wrote the paper’s authors. “The Ceasefire strategy was associated with a near two-thirds drop in youth homicide in the late 1990s.”
Most importantly, Operation Ceasefire—which was developed by criminologists David Kennedy, Anne Piehl, and Braga— connected existing community outreach and smart policing programs in the city to encourage open and honest communication between the public and police officers. That in turn led to the police closing, or solving, crimes in the city, which in turn led to a safer Boston.
Not everyone agrees with the academic findings and the connection between the policies and violence reduction. Merrimack College Criminology Professor Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who left the force to pursue an academic career in 2004, told me that he doubted the effectiveness of using the late 90s as a barometer for measuring what worked—and what didn’t—in Boston.
“The Boston Miracle was fiction,” said Nolan. As a member of the force from 1988 through 2004, a period which encompassed the years of the Miracle, Nolan didn’t recall ever being told anything about Ceasefire.
For Nolan, two related factors—the drop in crime nationally, and more effective targeting of gangs by police—preceded the city’s lower homicide rate; these aren’t considered by academics, to their detriment.
“Even if there was a measurable increase in violence that tied into defunding community programs, you can’t say there’s a cause and effect,” said Nolan. “It’s too tidy. The world doesn’t work like that.”
Police may be technically correct that violence is down in the city, but the amount of gun violence in Boston is simply not acceptable. And with murders down, but shootings up, there are other significant factors to examine. Crawford says that even the high quality of medical care in Boston plays a part.
“I think that cuts down on deaths despite the intention of the shooter,” he observed. “Wherever you are in Boston, you’re near to a hospital.”
However, Crawford said, proximity to good medical care can’t be the solution to the city’s larger problem of gun violence. Prevention and intervention require working with the community to address the fundamentals: poverty and a lack of opportunity.
“Part of the reason I got involved in anti-violence work was my was street shot up 15 times and my son was shot at,” said Monica Cannon Grant.
She told me that these experiences led her to attend community meetings and become involved in city politics; she worked with the local NAACP and City Councilor Tito Jackson, becoming more and more a part of Boston activism. She ran for State Representative in 2016 and was an organizer of a massive march against racism and white supremacy in the city in August 2017.
In the halls of power, Grant came to learn about the limits of these institutions. “The more you ask questions, the more you find out things you don’t want to know,” she said.
Connecting with community stakeholders is essential for police to solve violent crimes effectively, according to Nolan. Partnerships with business owners and civic and church leaders can provide trust in the community—the kind of trust that was missing from departments in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, where the police shooting of an unarmed teenager triggered anger and protest from the city’s long-oppressed black population against the police.
“Police departments like Ferguson, when you make mistakes or use questionable deadly force, there’s no well of good feeling with the community to make things right,” said Nolan.
For Crawford, there’s a disconnect and a callousness to how homicides and incidents of gun violence are treated in Boston—an idea that some victims of violence deserve it for their own criminal activity.
“It’s a really callous approach,” said Crawford. “Do we not investigate a burglary in a house that had an open door?”