Does Evans have a violence-reduction strategy?
The appointment of Boston’s new police commissioner, William Evans, has generated positive reaction, especially because of his vow to strengthen connections to residents through things like more walking beats in neighborhoods. He has also raised the idea of reviving a “gun buy-back” program that lets people anonymously turn in illegal guns in exchange for store gift cards.
Both are appealing ideas that are likely to be well-received. The one hitch: It’s not clear that walking patrols or gun buy-backs do much of anything to reduce gun violence, the main scourge that everyone agrees should be the top priority of police in Boston, as in most American cities.
Boston made headlines across the country in the mid- and late-1990s when the city’s homicide rate plummeted from more than 140 murders in 1990 to just 31 in 1999. Some of the drop was probably due to the waning of the national crack epidemic, but the sharpest drop occurred quite suddenly, starting in 1996, when Boston adopted a focused strategy to address gun violence that came to be known as the Ceasefire initiative. The approach was premised on the realization that a very small number of people, most of them affiliated with gangs of one form or another, were responsible for much of the gun violence. From that, police and a set of partners inside and outside law enforcement, devised an approach to dealing with these individuals that involved direct meetings at which all members of a gang were put on notice that any acts of violence connected to them would be dealt with swiftly. They were also told that help was available for those interested in turning their attention to more positive pursuits.
The Ceasefire strategy has been tweaked and molded in the years since then, and has been adopted by departments across the country. David Kennedy, the criminal justice researcher who was a key part of the Boston effort, writes this week in the Huffington Post that many of the cities that recorded the large drops in murders last year — including Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, New Orleans, and Stockton, California — have implemented versions of the Ceasefire strategy. He allows that not every city experiencing decreases in murder is using the approach, but he maintains that in those cities where Ceasefire is in place the results “are consistently, tremendously promising.”
Boston has shown an on-again, off-again embrace of the strategy, sometimes driven as much by changes in command staff and internal department politics as by any real reckoning with the effectiveness of the approach or current crime challenges. It will be worth watching Evans’s early moves for signals as to how he views the strategy that made the “Boston Miracle” of the 1990s a national crime-fighting success story.
There’s nothing wrong with that. As long as no one mistakes it for a focused strategy to reduce gun violence.
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