MAYOR MATTERS: Walk with me

Boston needs a renewed commitment to tackling youth violence

Sixth in a series

In 1990, there were 152 homicides in Boston. Youth from what we now call violent crime “hot spots” stopped playing outside. They made “walk-with-me friends,” linking up with peers solely for the perceived protection that came from not getting caught walking alone in their own neighborhood.

One night during that era I dropped off six teens at the corner of Bowdoin and Westville streets in Dorchester. Less than a block away, shots rang out. I drove in that direction and parked my van in the middle of Bowdoin Street to protect a teen lying there. I found two bullet holes in his chest. Hopeful, I applied first aid. EMTs arrived. They found six more holes in his back. He died.

It’s 1993. Like worker bees, youth workers, probation officers, ministers, and trusted police begin to use their passion, pagers, and willingness to collaborate in order to stop conflicts and save lives. Mayor Menino, District Attorney Ralph Martin, US Attorney Don Stern, and Police Commissioner Paul Evans stand together against violence. Communication and cooperation improved. Media, youth jobs, and targeted programs helped create a “Boston miracle.” Over a 29-month period ending in January 1998, there were no Boston homicide victims 17 years old or younger.

Now it’s 2013. Our homicide rate is in the 50s, a fraction of what it was in the early 1990s. We’re smarter. Our efforts are “place based,” focusing on three square miles, just 7 percent of the city, where 85 percent of violent crimes occur. We are “time based.” Violence occurs afternoons and evenings, and we are targeting efforts during this period. Finally, we are “people based.” Children who have relatives involved in crime have worse outcomes without interventions.

For all of our gains, however, there remains much to be done to address the horrific scourge of youth violence that continues to plague certain neighborhoods. Boston’s next mayor must lead us into a second “Boston miracle.” Here are some ideas that can help make this happen.

Let’s support safe haven youth centers in every “hot spot,” and embed therapists there to establish relationships with high-risk young people before their traumas ever begin. Forget providing services only after kids are arrested. That’s too late. Let’s compete with gangs by intercepting entire peer groups to prevent the first crimes — and the retaliation that inevitably follows.

School police should be “first interveners.” Make their introductions positive, as coaches and field trip drivers, not during violent incidents. Their court diversion program is a hidden jewel; it ends student conflicts without going to court, with charges only filed later if agreements are broken. We have all stood on streets and watched chaos on school buses passing by. What a way to start a school day. More monitors and video cameras will stop this. The next mayor should personally unload the delivery truck bringing cameras to the bus yard. If we need monitors and video surveillance on some walking routes to give youth safe passage, so be it.

Our school day still ends early so youth can work on farms before sunset, and our school calendar is still structured to give them time to work the fields all summer. When will we change it to match today’s modern post-agrarian world – and their parents’ work day? School doors open and thousands of youth are cast out onto our highest crime streets without adult supervision. This is a public safety crisis waiting to happen. We need a cohort of “swing staff,” youth workers who start their day in the afternoon in schools overseeing sports, arts, and club activities. At dismissal, they should ride buses or walk youth safely home. In the evening, they should supervise programs in community agencies. We need a staff of violence prevention specialists with access to passenger vans, food, and activities to meet youth wherever they are, and divert them away from the gang corners. Like a band, they need a variety of backgrounds, including college graduates, artists, ex-offenders, and athletes that match the interests and passions of our youth.

Nationally, high school dropouts commit 75 percent of crime. Many of them are “triple risk” youth because they are also residents of violent areas and relatives of active criminals. Let’s create work-study options where they help to maintain public spaces as students and workers who build their communities and contribute to their families. Teen unemployment rates reach 95 percent in Boston’s hot spots. Teen jobs are great predictors of adult success. Let’s partner with businesses and link the availability of youth jobs to school attendance and effort.

Thank God for second chances. Brain research reveals teens lack adult judgment. Our courts must show mercy and provide diversion for early offenders. Successful adults remember a time when they were given a second chance; let’s pass that forward.

The next mayor must push back against gang culture. He should push legislation that makes it a crime for three or more people to attack one individual or for adults to commit crimes in joint enterprise with minors three or more years younger. Let’s stop victim intimidation and the use of teens as “crash dummies” to commit crimes, including murder.

A longer Boston residency requirement and reducing the current military service and civil service exam advantages will help us create a police force that reflects the population it serves. Boston is a high cost city. Let’s also devise a way to help youth workers complete their higher education by forgiving costs at state schools in exchange for a term of service to low-income youth.

Finally, remember that with support, teens are leaders. We need them to mentor younger children and protect elders. Violent crime rates of youth organizers, athletes, actors, scholars, and workers approaches zero. There are just as many budding young artists in violence-prone hot spots as in other communities, just not as many easels.

Meet the Author
It’s 2017. Was the mayor we elected in 2013 a “walk-with-me friend” of the youth in Boston’s hot spots?

Emmett Folgert is executive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative.