TOPICS > Politics

Crime Drop

April 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the falling crime rate: a national statistic with local roots in places like Boston. Betty Ann Bowser reports.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Two years ago most of these teenagers were afraid to go to their local community centers to play basketball because many of the centers, like many of the streets of Boston’s inner city neighborhoods, were controlled by gangs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: What was it like a couple of years ago?

BRANDON SOWERS: There was just, you know what I’m sayin’, fights, gang fights, drive-bys, drugs.

TYRONE BROWN: Drive-by shootings, lots of drug slayings, you know, just fightin’.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Things were so bad in Joshua Rankins’ neighborhood that his parents kept him and his siblings inside most of the time. But that is changing.

JOSHUA RANKINS: They never used to let us outside and stuff, because they was scared we were going to get shot or something. But now we can go outside and do anything we want most of the time ’cause there’s not other people here to do all the bad things.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Rankins’ belief that there are not as many bad things happening is supported by statistics. Overall violent crime in the city of Boston has been declining, and not a single juvenile under the age of 17 has been killed with a gun since July of 1995. Police Commissioner Paul Evans says that’s because of a comprehensive, coordinated attack on juvenile crime that grew out of a way of youth violence that came to a head seven years ago.

PAUL EVANS, Police Commissioner: In 1990 we broke the city’s homicide record. We had 152 homicide victims. Nightly we were experiencing six, seven shootings a night. Guns and at that time crack cocaine were just terrifying the city. At that time I think it was a real concern will the city continue to be a viable city. And in some ways I think that was a catalyst for some of the partnerships you’re seeing today in the city.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of those partnerships was made with two researchers from Harvard. David Kennedy and Ann Piehl pinpointed just who was involved in the violence.

DAVID KENNEDY, Harvard University: About 75 percent of the youth 21 and under who’ve been killed in the city for about five years 75 percent of them have been arrested for something before, about a third of them have ten or more priors, about half of them have been in jail or on probation.

ANN PIEHL, Harvard University: We tried to summarize the extent of the landscape, the extent of the community involved in the high violence and came up with a number of 1300 kids in the city of Boston that were responsible for about 70 percent of the homicides.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: With this knowledge a carefully crafted strategy was developed that focused on those kids and their gangs. The first step was to bring all the law enforcement and social service agencies together for the first time. Criminologist James Alan Fox of Northeastern University said that was a crucial move.

JAMES FOX, Northeastern University: For a number of years our leaders had been concerned about a growing problem of youth crime and concerned about the future. And they decided to put down their differences and their politics and enter and work together to solve the problem, and it’s paid off.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The next step was to issue a warning to gang members: If you continue to commit acts of violence, you will be prosecuted, perhaps even under federal law. Police detective Tito Wittington.

TITO WITTINGTON, Police Detective: We told them that we’re going to be imposing certain federal sanctions. The sentencing is going to be federal. It’s not going to be sent away to your local jail, where you meet your friends and you play basketball and you watch TV, and it’s a joke. Now you’re going to be placed in federal prison, where you’re going to be serving 85 percent of your sentence before you’re even eligible for any type of probation or parole.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Did they believe it?


BETTY ANN BOWSER: So federal prosecutor Donald Stern–backed by every city, state, and federal law enforcement agency–went after one of the worst gangs in the city–the Intervale Posse.

DONALD STERN, U.S. Attorney: We knew that they were not only a violent organization but had become to some extent a bad symbol in the neighborhood, basically threatening and terrorizing people, and kind of taking over the neighborhood. I mean, they really, they were in control; we weren’t.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The National Guard bulldozed an eight-acre piece of property the gang used for target practice and to hide drugs. Twenty-three members of the Intervale Posse gang were arrested. Many face federal prosecution, with sentences up to 20 years without parole. Hewitt Joyner says word of the arrests hit the street almost immediately. He knows. He’s the director of the Streetworker’s program. Every day he and his colleagues walk the troubled neighborhoods in Boston, keeping track of activities, helping kids find alternatives to gang life.

HEWITT JOYNER, Streetworker Program: So like every day if you do something extra or you do excellent, then they give you like 2, 3 dollars added on to what you make, so you could mess around and make $10 an hour; messing right, you’ll be making more than what I make.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And Joyner wants his kids to know that once the federal law is involved he can’t do much to help them.

HEWITT JOYNER: We let the kids know that because we’re usually the saviors. We can save you in a lot of things, but when you get federally indicted on gun charges, bullet charges, murder, and things like that, we’re not touching you.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: After the arrest of the Intervale Posse gang, the violence stopped almost overnight. But the Boston effort did not stop there. The city also began to aggressively search out and arrest juveniles with outstanding warrants. Boston police are now aided in their efforts by transit authority cops and by the state police.

PAUL EVANS: When warrants were issued, for a long time in this city also, they didn’t mean anything. The kids wouldn’t show up in court, and the warrant would lay in somebody’s desk, and, in fact, it–it had no impact. It was a joke. Now almost on a daily basis if there’s a default warrant issued, if somebody doesn’t show up to court, the next day we’re looking for them, particularly if there’s violent crime.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: More cops are also making sure juveniles keep the terms of their probation. Under Operation “Night Light,” a partnership of probation officers and cops, the officers check the homes of juvenile offenders to make sure they’re in compliance with their curfew. When they’re not–as on this stop–charges are filed the next day. Technology has also been brought into the partnership. Under the sponsorship of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, & Firearms, the Boston police use state of the art computers that can link guns and bullets to other crimes. Sgt. Robert Scobie is director of the ballistics lab.

ROBERT SCOBIE, Police Ballistics Unit: What this does here in one hour it would take a firearm examiner to do throughout the entire course of his career. In one case we matched this one firearm up to four separate shootings in which three people were murdered, and five people were wounded. We were able to determine that gun was at that scene.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Computer technology also helped them track down and prosecute several big-time gun runners who were selling weapons to juveniles. The Boston plan is not just about intervention and enforcement. Teaching teens how to interview for jobs and providing safe places for teenagers to play are just two of the ways that Boston leaders try to prevent kids from getting involved in violence in the first place. Criminologist Fox applauds the city’s efforts but says they will be short-lived unless Boston leaders keep the pressure on.

JAMES FOX: We now have 39 million children in this country under the age of ten, and they’ll be teenagers before you can say juvenile crime rate. By the year 2005, we’ll see 17 percent more teenagers in this country. Unless we invest in these kids now when they’re young and impressionable, we may see a future blood bath of teenage violence that will be so bad that we’ll look back at the 1990’s and say, boy, those were the good old days.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Harvard researcher Kennedy thinks the changes that Boston has experienced just might be permanent.

DAVID KENNEDY: It seems like once the gangs believed that they really would have a response they really didn’t want, then that’s where the dynamic that got set up, and if they stop, as they seem to have stopped, then the temperature on the streets goes down because the kids aren’t being shot at and they’re not being threatened.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: At least 16 other cities are attempting to replicate portions of the Boston experiment, but Boston city officials say to be successful other cities will have to do what they have done–make the program comprehensive, involving all law enforcement and social services agencies.