Crime and Puzzlement

As Boston's crime-fighting miracle fades, questions arise about a tactic abandoned, and a youth culture seen as toxic

Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole wants
to use proven programs “but apply them to
the current situation.”

Essdras M. Suarez, The Boston Globe

When four young men were killed, execution-style, in mid-December in the makeshift basement music studio of a Dorchester home, Boston convulsed in horror over the city’s worst multiple murder in a decade. While the killings—which took place in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood—sent shock waves across the city, they were only a grisly coda to an already bloody year in which violence made a big comeback in Boston.

If the killings of the four young men, three of whom were part of a fledging rap group, served as a loud wake-up call on the return of youth violence, they also put a harsh spotlight on elements of rap and hip-hop culture that don’t simply capture the rough edges of urban life, but glorify the bravado and violence that are too often part of it. By year’s end, tactics for waging peace were being rethought at Boston Police Department headquarters, while at City Hall leaders were turning their attention to T-shirts and hip-hop lyrics.

Grim statistics tell the tale: The number of murders in Boston climbed from 61 in 2004 to 75 in 2005, a 23 percent rise, while total shootings jumped from 267 to 341, an increase of 28 percent. These numbers are a far cry from just seven years ago, in 1999, when there were only 31 homicides in Boston, the lowest number recorded by the city in nearly 40 years. Violence has been on a steady march back since the city garnered national headlines for its success in quelling youth violence in the 1990s, a joint effort by law enforcement and community organizations that became known as “The Boston Miracle.”

But now, Boston’s miracle has become another casualty of renewed violence. Following the quadruple homicide, the Rev. Bruce Wall, a veteran anticrime leader among the city’s black clergy, told the Boston Herald, “We have to start all over again. We need a new miracle. The other one is dead.”

For several years now, Boston police have taken note of the upward creep of violent incidents, in response launching a series of military-sounding initiatives. Two years ago, it was Operation Neighborhood Shield, a muscular clampdown that teamed Boston police with state troopers and agents from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Last summer, the department unveiled Operation Rolling Thunder, a show of force in which officers on foot, bicycle, and even horseback fanned out in troubled neighborhoods for several days of intensive patrol. And in January, riding under the banner Operation Home Safe, law enforcement agencies conducted warrant sweeps of violence-prone neighborhoods, arresting scores of offenders wanted on outstanding charges.

Unclear in this series of campaigns, however, is what happened to an earlier initiative with a proven track record of stemming youth violence—one that seems to have faded from the crime-fighting scene, even though no one ever formally pulled the plug on it.

Operation Ceasefire was the centerpiece of Boston’s acclaimed crime-stopping efforts of the 1990s, an approach that brought together the combined force of law enforcement, street outreach workers, and clergy to deliver a firm message to perpetrators that the gang violence dragging down Boston’s predominantly minority neighborhoods had to stop. Under Ceasefire, police, probation officers, and youth outreach workers put gang members on notice—usually by gathering them together at local courthouses, other times through more informal street encounters—that a shooting committed by a member of their group would result in the full force of the law coming down on all members. That tactic, described as pulling all available “levers,” could include swift arrest for outstanding warrants, heightened probation checks, and increased enforcement of “disorder” laws gang-bangers might be violating.

Ceasefire consisted of both carrot and stick. To those who wanted it, city-paid youth workers and faith-based activists were there to help with a job search or education. But to those who failed to heed the anti-violence warnings, heavy prosecutorial muscle, sometimes under federal statutes carrying long sentences in prisons far from home, was applied.

In the 12 months following the first Ceasefire intervention in May 1996, Boston’s homicide count among those 24 years old and younger fell to a level not seen in more than 20 years. The city’s total murder count dropped from 96 the previous year to 59 in 1996. In 1997, the body count was down to 43, and by 1999 homicides bottomed out at 31.

For several years, police refuted the idea that the Ceasefire model and the partnerships that made it work had been jettisoned or weakened (“Scene of the Crime,” CW, Winter ’03), and in fact argued that the principles behind it were being applied even more widely. They pointed to the inmate reentry program started several years ago at the South Bay House of Correction, where soon-to-be-released prisoners deemed at high risk for re-offending were given the Ceasefire promise of help for those who want it and swift justice for those who return to their old ways.

But critics say the reentry program was no substitute for the street work of the 1990s, when police and street workers had a firm handle on what was happening block by block and were able to deliver the Ceasefire message in a timely fashion to groups involved in recent incidents or seemingly poised for retaliation against a rival gang.

In the 1990s, police had a firm handle on the streets, block by block.
Boston police “lost control of the streets,” says David Kennedy, a former Harvard researcher who was part of the team that designed the Ceasefire program. “The deep tragedy here is that 10 years ago Boston showed everybody else how to do this, and for whatever internal reason it has turned its back on it,” says Kennedy, who now directs the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Superintendent Paul Joyce now acknowledges it’s been years since the department conducted Ceasefire panels with gangs active on the city streets. But with the violence continuing unabated, in December, law enforcement officials began to talk openly of a return to the Ceasefire model.

US Attorney Michael Sullivan says Boston has “drifted away” from the core approach of delivering the carrot-and-stick message to groups of young offenders. “Hopefully we can get back to delivering that message to groups in a targeted way,” he says.

Joyce vows to make the Ceasefire approach part of an effort to target the 10 small areas where as many as a quarter of all gun crimes occur. “We are going to look to go back and institute some kind of dialogue” between street gang members and “street workers, clergy, and the police,” he says.

Still, despite the national recognition the crime-busting model received in the ’90s, Boston officials seem curiously reluctant to make the approach the centerpiece of current efforts—or to even invoke the Ceasefire name in discussing strategies for tackling youth violence.

“We’re trying to take the pieces of programs that have worked in the past, but apply them to the current situation,” says Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole. “We’re focusing on key impact players. [But] we’re focusing more on individuals than we are on groups,” she says, pointing to an effort last spring to enlist clergy and community partners to conduct home visits with 1,000 Boston youth identified as key figures in youth crime and violence.

hile police say their focus has turned toward individuals more than groups, the other front in the war against youth violence opened in the wake of the Bourneside Street quadruple homicide—popular culture—has a decidedly group dynamic.

Anticrime veteran Larry Mayes: “It’s a battle for the
hearts and minds of these kids.”

Meghan Moore

The violence now plaguing the city that is broadly characterized as “gang-related” is not principally a function of large, hierarchically organized criminal enterprises focused on drug sales or other illegal commerce, police and youth workers say. It is, rather, the product of perhaps a hundred loosely organized groups of youth, rooted largely in neighborhood turf. These “gangs” may be involved in low-level drug dealing and other petty crimes, but shootings are as apt to stem from an accidental bump on the subway, competition over a girl, or an off-the-cuff epithet tossed at a member of another crew.

“It’s as much about madness as it is about money,” says Emmett Folgert, the longtime director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, a youth center for at-risk teens. “The youth culture is just too freakin’ violent, and we have to cool that down. We have a real issue of cultural norms here, of violent norms. We have to start branding what the norms should be.”

From the sale of STOP SNITCHIN’ T-shirts, whose message seemed calculated to discourage cooperation with law enforcement, to reports of the gratuitously violent lyrics of Graveside (the amateur rap group that victims of the Dorchester killing belonged to), the year of mounting violence ended with increased attention to the ways popular culture reinforces the worst of what’s going on in urban neighborhoods.

“We need a no-holds-barred counteroffensive to the messages that come from media to youth,” says Larry Mayes, the city’s chief of human services, who was part of the potent anticrime partnerships of the 1990s as a youth outreach worker at the Ella J. Baker House in Dorchester. “It’s a battle for the hearts and minds of these kids.”

The glorification of violence in lyrics pumped out by Graveside—young men with no history of such behavior themselves—even drew the attention of New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who issued a similar call to arms in the urban culture wars.

“It is time to blow the whistle on the nitwits who have so successfully promoted a values system that embraces murder, drug-dealing, gang membership, misogyny, child abandonment and a sense of self so diseased that it teaches children to view the men in their orbit as niggaz and the women as hoes,” Herbert wrote in response to the Boston killings.

Hip-hop artists are not ready to take the rap for the crime on Boston’s streets, but some acknowledge that music carries a message, whether positive or negative.

“I’m not going to sit here and blame hip-hip for the violence,” says Derrick Ashong of the Boston– based group Soulfège, whose music is a blend of hip-hop, reggae, and funk. “But I’m also not going to say if you’re feeding your children a daily diet of misogyny, violence, and ignorance it’s not going to affect the way they see the world.” Ashong, a native of Ghana whose music eschews the now almost-rote rap focus on guns and gangs in favor of a message of empowerment and pride directed toward the “African diaspora,” blames the corporate honchos who control the nation’s music industry and profit from peddling “thug life” nihilism to hip-hop wannabes in the suburbs. Ernesto Arroyo, of the Boston hip-hop duo The Foundation, says, “there’s a thin line between storytelling and glorification.” In his music, Arroyo, who uses the stage name “Eroc,” says he tries to “reflect the positivity we’d like to see.”

Some blame the music industry for peddling ‘Thug Life’ nihilism.

The Foundation and Soulfège have teamed up to form a group they’ve dubbed Diaspora Funk Movement, whose music is focused, Arroyo says, on “poverty, racism, and the pursuit of social justice.”

Mayes, who several years ago helped to launch a community-based Dorchester radio station run by teenage girls—a group more often denigrated than celebrated in rap music—says a media strategy is needed to “encourage voices that don’t get heard.”

In mid-January, Mayor Thomas Menino announced a series of new anticrime initiatives, including plans for an antigun and antiviolence advertising campaign and a “hip-hop roundtable,” which will gather local hip-hop artists monthly to strategize on ways to use their musical platform to promote peace. The same week, Menino joined the Dorchester storeowner who sold the controversial STOP SNITCHIN’ shirts for the unveiling of a new line of shirts trumpeting a decidedly different message: START PEACE.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Can a war on crime be won with positive-message fashions and rap songs? Mayes sees these efforts as an extension of the foreign policy thinking of Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The resurgence of youth violence, says Mayes, has to be attacked with both the “hard power” of law enforcement and the “soft power” of culture and ideas.

Whether it’s the hard-power battle between gangs and grown-ups for control of the streets or the competition of messages delivered to the soft-power beat of popular culture, a lot is riding on the outcome.