Scene of the crime

IN THE LATE 1980s and early 1990s, when the city was teeming with crack cocaine and drive-by shootings, Boston police sergeant Robert Merner watched the life drain out of more victims of gunfire than he cares to count. Back then, says Merner, who has spent much of his 16 years on the force working the streets of Roxbury where he grew up, police raced blindly from one shooting scene to another, with little clue about what to do to stanch the bleeding. In the years that followed, Merner became one of the original ground troops in a multi-front battle against crime that resulted in what came to be known as the Boston Miracle. A combination of police and prosecutorial tactics, brought to bear with the backing of clergy and other partners in the city’s black community, drove Boston’s violent crime rate down to its lowest level in 30 years. Roxbury is a different world today, Bobby Merner says. But even this seen-it-all son of Mission Hill confesses he was jolted last summer into fearing he was seeing it all again.

Early on a warm June evening, 10-year-old Trina Persad was mortally wounded by a shotgun blast from a passing car as she walked near a crowded Roxbury playground, the innocent victim of an apparent gang-related attack gone awry. “To me, it was Tiffany Moore all over again,” says Merner. Darlene Tiffany Moore was 11 years old when she was killed in gang crossfire on a hot summer night in 1988 while sitting on a Roxbury mailbox, and Merner was one of the first officers on the scene. Moore’s death came to symbolize the madness taking hold on the streets, an era of drug- and gang-fueled violence that saw the city’s homicide count spike at 152 in 1990. In a touch of bitter irony, the Trina Persad shooting took place at the edge of a park named for another innocent young victim of senseless gun violence from that time, 9-year-old Jermaine Goffigan, killed in 1994.

As the death of another child in the crossfire sounds an eerie echo of that terrifying period in the city’s life, it also raises a question: Have the law enforcement strategies and community partnerships credited with Boston’s more recent crime-fighting success frayed, if not fallen apart? Even those with the most interest in defending the status quo recognize the question needs to be asked. “Everything should be challenged and questioned when we lose a 10-year-old girl like that,” says Boston police commissioner Paul Evans.

Some have done just that, suggesting that the well-oiled partnerships between police, prosecutors, preachers, and street workers grew creaky while the city rode a wave of national–and even international–publicity. “We were believing our own press clips,” says Rev. Eugene Rivers, a cofounder of the clergy-based Ten Point Coalition. “We were getting such a great reputation we thought we could walk on water.”

Walking on water aside, Evans and other police leaders insist that the city has not lost its way. The basic elements of Boston’s anti-crime program are as firmly in place as ever, they say; if anything, they’re now casting their anti-crime net wider and deeper. They’re redoubling efforts to reach youths at younger ages when they’re still on the brink, rather than in the thick, of trouble. And they’re pressing harder at the back end, through a re-entry program for inmates who pose the greatest risk of returning to drug dealing or violent crime upon release. Meanwhile, the department is working to rein in gun violence through a new project on unsolved shootings, an effort that is tapping many of the same interagency partnerships used so effectively in the 1990s. “As people were faulting us, we were taking it to another level,” says Evans.

Bobby Merner: recognized by every
ne’er-do-well in his Roxbury district.

Few doubt the commitment of Boston police officials to devise new strategies for new problems, or the consequences for residents if they fail. But the recent uptick in criminal violence has, understandably, raised the antennae of city dwellers. Even if it turns out to be nothing more than an anxiety attack, there is reason to wonder whether the complex web of efforts and relationships that squelched crime in Boston in the 1990s has come unraveled in the 2000s.

Unmaking miracle–or myth?

The Boston Miracle was no miracle. It was the result of hard work by those on the front line–cops like Merner, probation officers, youth workers, and clergy in predominantly black churches–who saw gun violence ripping away at the fabric of city life, but felt helpless to control it. By breaking down the traditional barriers that separated those groups, Boston was able to forge partnerships that helped guide those on the edge of trouble toward more licit pursuits–and throw those responsible for the gunplay and bloodshed into jail.

Police and probation officers teamed up to form Operation Night Light, paying evening visits to probationers to make sure they were complying with the terms of their court supervision. Outreach, or “street,” workers were deployed to counsel at-risk youths and steer them on the right track toward schooling or jobs. The city-run program, launched in 1990, put as many as 30 young adults on the streets–eight of them funded by the state Department of Public Health. Rivers established his own outreach operation out of a Dorchester triple-decker, the Ella J. Baker House, in the tough Four Corners neighborhood.

Meanwhile, the emerging black leadership of the clergy-led Ten Point Coalition stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the cops, who had long been seen as adversaries rather than allies of the black community. The new alliance sent a powerful message that excessive crime, not overzealous police, was the biggest problem plaguing city neighborhoods.

But the nuts-and-bolts centerpiece of the effort was a project dubbed Operation Cease Fire, which brought gang members suspected of involvement in acts of violence before a phalanx of cops, prosecutors, probation officers, and youth workers, who delivered a potent two-part message: We’ll give you help with schooling or finding a job, if that’s what you want. But if you resort to new acts of lawlessness, the consequences will be swift and harsh, with police and prosecutors coming down on you like a ton of bricks.

 As questions have been raised about the Boston strategy’s continued vitality, it’s Cease Fire that has come most under the gun. “There is no systematic, interagency response to acts of violence,” says David Kennedy, a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who collaborated with the Boston police in developing the Cease Fire program in the mid-1990s. “The backbone of what worked is gone, it’s just that simple.”

Harvard’s David Kennedy:
“The backbone of what worked is gone.”

Kennedy has not been shy about his criticisms, penning an op-ed piece in The Boston Globe last summer and offering critical quotes to The New York Times and Governing magazine, in which Boston suffers by comparison with New York City on crime-fighting staying power. Kennedy’s jabs have become a source of frustration to police, who say the researcher’s role in launching the project–and in efforts to promote it in other cities across the nation–has made him unduly wedded to this single aspect of Boston’s anti-crime plans, and too quick to condemn current practices he knows little about.

“It’s a little bit frustrating to hear that from people [who are] not involved now,” says Superintendent Paul Joyce, the department’s chief of special operations and main architect of its anti-gang and gun strategies. “To continue to say that Cease Fire was the one thing that made a difference is just not accurate.” What’s more, police say they’ve hardly thrown in the towel on the tactic. According to figures provided by the department, there were 12 cease-fire sessions held last year through mid-December, more than twice the number held all year in both 2001 and 2000.

“My own view is that the Boston police haven’t retreated at all from that strategy,” says federal prosecutor Ted Heinrich. Still, he worries that the message may not be getting out as effectively as it was in the Cease Fire heyday. “That’s not to say they’re not open to criticism that they’re not pursuing elements of it in as focused a way as they were.”

The grumbling about the Boston strategy goes beyond Cease Fire. A variety of participants and observers suggest that, in the backwash of complacency, Boston may have lost its crime-fighting edge. “It’s a baseball team that’s in first place by 10 games–you lose some of your focus,” says former US Attorney Donald Stern, who was part of the law-enforcement team in the 1990s.

That’s especially true when the team is made up of disparate players, with disparate loyalties. “The problem with the wonderful organizational collaborations is, what happens when you win?” says George Kelling, a criminologist who has, as a consultant, studied Boston’s crime control strategies. “It seems to me that Boston took us to the cutting edge of thinking about inter-organization collaborations, but did not find a model for how to continue that.”

Revs. Ray Hammond and Eugene Rivers:
not sharing the stage.

Others point to the key players in the original team who have moved on, such as Stern, the commander of the police department gang unit, and the director of the city’s street-worker program. “There was an awful lot of praise heaped on the city of Boston, from the police to clergy to community,” says Jack McDevitt, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University. “Some of that resulted in people being promoted to different positions, moving on to new jobs. Some of the new people may not have come in with the same zeal.”

Some of them have not come in at all. As of early December, the city’s street-worker office had been without a program manager for more than six months, and two other outreach worker slots were vacant. There are also fewer bodies on the streets, as the eight state-funded positions have been redefined so that the outreach workers spend more time at youth-service sites. “It’s not that I have a bad rapport with them,” Merner says of the outreach workers today. “I don’t have any rapport with them.”

Partners and putdowns

Suggestions that Boston’s anti-crime efforts aren’t what they used to be are getting voiced amid concerns that crime is staging a comeback in the city. So how bad has it gotten in Boston? Not all that bad, actually. But bad enough.

After just 31 homicides in 1999–an 80 percent drop from the 1990 high point–Boston’s murder count crept up to 40 in 2000, and then bounded to 66 in 2001. The number of total shootings also rose, from 163 in 2000 to 223 in 2001, a 37 percent increase. Police say the 1999 low point in homicides is probably unsustainable for a city of Boston’s size, but it has nonetheless become the benchmark for the city’s crime-fighting performance. When the homicide rate jumped up, some people leaped to unwarranted conclusions, Evans says. “There was a judgment that everything’s fallen apart, that everyone’s become complacent. I don’t see it,” says Evans. “In many ways, I think we became victims of our own success, statistically.”

In other ways, as well. Police and prosecutors point to two factors they think may be behind the rise in gun violence: an expanding population of juveniles in the crime-prone 14-to-17-year-old age-range, and the return of violent offenders who were sent away during the city’s last big wave of violence. Police say the teen bulge will continue, with a further 20 percent growth in the adolescent population over the next four to five years. Meanwhile, 250 offenders per month are being released from the South Bay House of Correction, Suffolk County’s principal correctional facility, the vast majority of them heading back to the same neighborhoods where they committed their offenses.

Some criminologists question the teen bulge theory, pointing out that the youth population was already on the rise in the last half of the 1990s, the very years crime rates dropped to their lowest levels. Similarly, the number of inmates being released in Suffolk County has not risen in recent years. The average age of homicide victims and suspects is higher today than it was in 1990, but otherwise there are no hard data showing that ex-cons are playing a bigger role in crime today than, say, five or 10 years ago. Still, those close to the streets say that young wannabes and returning inmates make for a dangerous mix.

Superintendent Paul Joyce, left, confers
with Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.

“Many of those older guys that went away are now being released–those that didn’t get the federal ‘football numbers,'” says Chris Byner, a manager in the city’s youth services office, referring to the lengthy sentences handed out in federal court. “So now you’re coming back into a neighborhood that is for all intents and purposes being run by guys who used to watch you operate. That’s where you’ve got the clash.”

“It’s getting hot and hotter,” adds Rivers, who has also warned of a coming crop of violence-prone youth he says are “less socialized” than their predecessors.

Rising anxieties on the street have left Boston vulnerable to unflattering comparisons. In his farewell address before leaving office a year ago, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani contrasted his zero-tolerance approach to crime and disorder in New York, where crime rates were still falling, to the partnership-based approach in Boston, where the murder count was climbing. “I don’t know,” said Giuliani. “Which policing theory would you want to follow?”

 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was not amused by the public putdown. “It’s nice to make headlines,” says Menino. “But when you get the job done quietly, that has real impact in our neighborhoods. We don’t have the racial tension that he may have had in New York. That’s very important to me.”

Indeed, one of the great achievements of Boston’s anti-crime campaign was that it was carried out in collaboration with minority leaders–most visibly, black ministers–and thus did not result in increased racial animosity between cops and community. With violent crime most pervasive in the city’s minority neighborhoods, black clergy established a remarkable relationship with a police department that, despite increased minority ranks, remains a white-led institution in a city known for its history of racial tension. Such a shift was only possible with a police department that has, under Evans, shown a sensitivity to concerns about the use of excessive police force–and to forging ties with black leaders that make clamping down on crime a shared pursuit, not a source of strain.

In this, Evans was able to capitalize on the efforts of Rivers, Rev. Ray Hammond, and other prominent black ministers such as Rev. Bruce Wall, who began battling Roxbury drug dealers back in the early 1980s. “We shifted the discussion from blame to responsibility,” says Hammond.

“This is the best partnership in the United States,” Rivers raves of the city’s police-community relations.

But those ties have faced a particularly severe test of late, as a series of police shootings have renewed old tensions between the department and minority neighborhoods. Nine suspects have been killed by Boston police officers in shootings over the past two years. The strain reached a particularly high level in September, when a 25-year-old Cape Verdean woman, Eveline Barros-Cepada, was shot and killed by a Boston police officer as she rode in the back seat of a car that police say had run a red light and struck an officer. The protests that followed these incidents even included a sudden, if apparently fleeting, appearance of the self- declared New Black Panther Party.

Meanwhile, Evans found himself squeezed between critics in the minority community, who spoke out against the police shootings, and his own patrol officers’ union, which, in a vote of no confidence, called for the commissioner’s resignation after Evans announced a new policy prohibiting police from firing at a moving vehicle. Evans’ best allies in this storm? The black clergy he has come to count on. But this time, the support came with a twist.

Ten days after the Barros-Cepada shooting, Rivers called a press conference to offer his support of Evans, saying that recent police use of deadly force seemed to have come not from “police misconduct, but rather from the misbehavior of a small segment of the youth and adults in the black community.” The next day, Hammond convened a press conference of his own to offer a similar message of support for Evans.

Though Rivers and Hammond were on the same page, it was no accident that they did not share the same stage. The competing press conferences were just new evidence of an old fissure between these black ministers over their proper role in battling crime.

Rivers, the brash and sharp-tongued bomb thrower, and Hammond, a consensus-seeking Harvard Medical School graduate, were always a study in sharp contrasts. If that made them a dynamic leadership duo when they first joined forces in the early 1990s, Rivers’s take-no-prisoners approach did not make for smooth sailing, and the board of the Boston Ten Point Coalition, which he had founded with Hammond, asked him to leave in 1997. Unwilling to give up the valuable brand he had done so much to forge, Rivers formed a new entity called the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation.

Now operating from different platforms, Rivers continued to insist on the need for faith-based activists to take the streets, while Hammond focused on drawing a broader team of ministers into the Ten Point fold. But even divorce was not enough to stop the two leaders from clashing. In the fall of 2001, when Hammond and Boston police officials held a press conference to address concerns about rising violence in the city, outreach workers from Rivers’s Baker House appeared and distributed fliers excoriating Hammond for having shunned the nitty-gritty work of confronting gang members directly.

“We were completely unsurprised,” Hammond says of the ambush. “Gene doesn’t do business in a way that promotes collaboration.”

For his part, Rivers now seems to regret the episode–sort of. “It was in poor taste, admittedly,” he says. But he doesn’t back down from the point he was trying to make, at Hammond’s expense. “The political beef was, we need to get back to the real work for real.”

Treading gingerly around the clergy clash, Joyce, the police superintendent, says, “I am aware of some of the differences that are out there, but it never comes into play when it comes to the safety of the city.” Maybe so. But with the city facing new challenges in the bid to quell crime, it’s hard to see how it helps.

Scared straight?

Even if the messy reality does not quite measure up to the hype, the Boston strategy is far from dead. In fact, all the partners in the city’s anti-crime efforts are involved in attempts to put new tools in the box.

One effort on the enforcement front involves zealously pursuing those who have been involved in recent gun incidents. Starting early last year, every two weeks, detectives and commanders from the four or five police districts where the lion’s share of the shootings occur have gathered at police headquarters with officers from the city’s Youth Violence Strike Force, the specialized team that focuses on gang activity, and prosecutors from the district attorney’s office and US attorney’s office. The police department’s research office maps patterns of shootings across the city, and the ballistics lab connects guns that have been involved in multiple shootings. Armed with this information–and the intelligence gained on the streets–the sessions have one focus, says Joyce: “Who are the people that are continuing to fuel the violence out in our neighborhoods?”

“We start looking for connections and linkages,” says Robert Dunford, who was the captain in charge of the Dorchester police district for 11 years before being promoted last fall to direct the department’s training operations. Calling the unsolved shooting initiative “one of the best things that’s come down the pike,” Dunford says, “You pick off an impact player in a neighborhood, it has a huge effect.”

And law enforcement is turning up the heat on these cases using whatever levers it can pull. Assistant US Attorney Heinrich, who focuses on gang and drug cases, says the threat of federal prosecution–and those “football numbers” sentences–can help. “Because oftentimes the only way out of those sentences is to cooperate, we tend to get a lot of information from a lot of gang members who have information about unsolved shootings and unsolved homicides,” says Heinrich.

Another new tactic is to bring perjury charges for lying about shootings, a stratagem that helped quiet the Bowdoin Street neighborhood of Dorchester, which had come to resemble “a war zone,” according to Michael Branch, a probation officer at Dorchester District Court. “It was to the point where these kids were riding around armed, and if they saw each other, wherever it would be, gun violence would erupt,” says Branch. Last summer, prosecutors charged three alleged members of the Cape Verdean Outlaws gang with perjuring themselves before a grand jury that was investigating an October 2001 shooting in which one of them was wounded. Two of the three men are being held on high bail. “There hasn’t been an incident there since July,” says Dunford.

“You’d be surprised how fast that word spreads,” Branch says of the perjury case.

“If individuals think they can come into the grand jury and lie in order to get away with things, we need to smash that notion with as much force as we can,” says newly elected Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, who also pledges to strengthen the partnerships between law enforcement and the community. He has recently expanded a collaborative program called the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, which brings prosecutors and residents in target areas together for monthly meetings to discuss priorities for prosecution.

These new efforts, says Joyce, show how the “cease fire” message can be delivered in lots of ways, not just Kennedy’s cherished encounter sessions. “I always said, it wasn’t the forum, it’s the message you give.”

One of the newest forums for the cease-fire message is the South Bay House of Correction. There, on a Wednesday afternoon in late October, 20 inmates clad in orange and green prison-issue jumpsuits file into a brightly lit room and take seats in two rows. All but one of them are black or Hispanic, most in their late teens or early 20s. They are this month’s Terrible 20, a group of inmates approaching release who have been determined by a team of police, prosecutors, and sheriff’s department officials to be among the biggest risks to go back to gun or drug crime when they return to society. In the seats across from them sit a dozen people who represent their potential salvation–or their worst nightmare.

“You have a sea of resources here in front of you,” says Truesee Allah, smartly dressed in a tan suit and tie that trumpet the turn he’s taken since serving 8 1/2 years in prison. Allah, who works for the Nation of Islam’s mosque in Grove Hall, is one of four faith-based mentors on the panel who pledge to help the inmates get high school degrees, find jobs, and secure housing. The mentors, whose positions are funded by a police department grant, meet weekly with the inmates while they’re still in jail, and are available to help them upon their release–the sooner the better. “Sometimes the window back into crime can be as short as 12 hours,” says Joyce, the police superintendent.

Faith-based mentor Truesee Allah helps inmates
negotiate a “sea of resources” to turn their
lives around after release.

Also present are representatives from a job placement agency, a federally funded youth program, and the state Department of Revenue (to help those who are fathers weave their way through the child support bureaucracy). The message from all of them is the same: If you’re ready to change your ways, we’re ready to help.

“I know you feel like you’re under a microscope,” Allah says to the inmates. “But this is really about the man in the mirror.”

If Allah offers the carrots, there is no doubt who carries the big stick.

“I’m the one person in the room you don’t want to meet again,” Marianne Hinkle tells them. She is a federal prosecutor in the US attorney’s Boston office. A Suffolk County prosecutor walks the group through the tough state sanctions they face for future offenses, but Hinkle rattles off the hard time they could do if convicted on federal charges. With three prior convictions for violent crimes or serious drug distribution charges, a new conviction for possessing a firearm or even ammunition will bring a mandatory sentence of 15 years to life, she tells them. The US attorney’s office takes a look at every gun arrest made in Boston, she says. And her office will be keeping a close eye on them. “We know who every one of you is,” she says. “We’re going to stop the violence. We’re not going to let it go back to the way it was 10 years ago.”

Joyce calls the monthly face-offs of the two-year-old re-entry program the “ultimate cease fire” sessions. “You’re dealing with impact players before they come back into the community and offering them services to turn themselves around and consequences if they don’t.”

How well has the effort worked? Of the 112 inmates who were selected for the program from April 2001 to May 2002, 92 stayed in touch with their mentors for at least some period of time, while 22 shunned re-entry help. Those who remained involved with the program have been only half as likely to be rearrested for serious drug or violent offenses.

Joyce calls the early results “encouraging,” though the numbers are too small and the follow-up period too short to draw any firm conclusions. But experts say the department is on the right track.

“Most initiatives focus on the easier-to-treat individuals,” says Anne Piehl, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and author of a MassINC report on post-release supervision of inmates, From Cell to Street. “What should be commended about this program is they’re purposefully choosing the other end of the distribution, the people who are most likely to fail on the outside.”

The re-entry idea is taking hold nationally, not least because there is suddenly a pot of money available for such initiatives. Last year, the federal government allocated $100 million to begin re-entry programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia. In Massachusetts, the Department of Correction, which runs state prisons, and the Department of Youth Services, the juvenile corrections agency, each received $1 million to begin such programs.

Price of prevention

The two-pronged cease-fire message–you can get help, or you can get trouble–is being delivered in yet another way in Grove Hall, a neighborhood on the Dorchester/Roxbury border that’s currently high on the police department’s gang-and-drug-activity radar screen. After culling police and court records, the department has identified 214 individuals or families believed to pose the greatest threat to the stability of the neighborhood. Those identified have amassed more than 5,000 court arraignments between them. “So I think we’re looking at the right group,” Joyce observes dryly.

About a quarter of the group may be targeted for prosecution. But for the rest, the idea is to get ahead of the crime curve by linking these individuals and their families to city and state services ranging from substance abuse and mental health treatment to education, employment, or job-training.

Youth advocates and others say projects like the Grove Hall initiative are a step in the right direction. But the state budget crisis and a tough economy mean it may be easier to talk about those services than to deliver them.

Emmett Folgert has spent more than 20 years operating the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, a drop-in center for at-risk youth in Fields Corner. Though he’s used to cobbling together the funds to keep his agency going, Folgert says he has already seen the impact of tight budgets on efforts to prevent delinquency and crime. A state initiative called Targeted Cities, which directed $2.5 million a year to services in neighborhoods like his, which have high rates of teen pregnancy, high-school dropout, and Department of Youth Services supervision, was axed in last year’s budget cuts.

“A permanent revenue stream has never been established for prevention,” says Folgert. “It’s all piecemeal, and it goes up and down.”

With public dollars for prevention becoming more scarce just as concern about crime was rising, the city’s largest philanthropic organization, The Boston Foundation, stepped forward last spring to announce a three-year commitment of $1.5 million for community-based anti-crime efforts. Announcing the initiative, foundation president Paul Grogan declared, “We’re not going to let the Boston Miracle disintegrate.”

Among the grants the foundation has made so far are $60,000 to the Ella J. Baker House, the Dorchester center run by Rivers, to recruit more faith-based leaders to work with high-risk youth, and $50,000 to the Boston Ten Point Coalition, directed by Hammond, to support church leaders working with DYS clients.

“I think it’s hugely important not to go back on that front,” Grogan says of the prevention services that have been a complement to the targeted prosecution of offenders.

But the effort to help seed a new cadre of faith-based workers is, in many ways, an attempt to build an infrastructure that was never there to begin with. “If the general public thinks churches all over town were adopting gang members and doing street patrols, it just never was the case,” says one outreach veteran. Indeed, this new effort to build a broader network of church-based activists seems aimed at reaching the scale envisioned, but never realized, a decade ago, when Rivers and Hammond co-founded the clergy-led Ten Point Coalition in the first place.

No more memorials

To some, Trina Persad’s death was the final proof that the Boston anti-crime strategy had come unglued. But in some ways, it was also evidence that the Boston strategy is intact and at work, even if not always successful.

Within days of the shooting, police had two suspects in custody: Joseph Cousin, a 17-year-old Dorchester resident identified as the shooter, and Marquis Nelson, 24, of Roxbury, who is alleged to have driven the car the lethal shotgun spray came from. Both suspects have pleaded not guilty to murder charges, and are being held without bail.

Police say Cousin and Nelson are members of the MIC gang (the initials mark its turf on Roxbury’s Magnolia, Intervale, and Creston streets), an outgrowth of the notorious Intervale Street Posse, a gang that left plenty of bullets and bodies in its wake during the early and mid-’90s. The intended target, say police, was a member of the Big Head Boyz, long-time rivals from nearby Brunswick Street.

Six weeks before the shooting, Cousin had been at Dorchester District Court, one of a handful of youths who had been called in for a Cease Fire session convened by police, probation officers, and the Department of Youth Services. Cousin had a juvenile gun charge on his record and was under DYS community supervision. “He was given the message and he didn’t heed the message,” says Joyce.

As for Nelson, he had been arrested in 1996, when he was just 17, as part of a sweep that nailed 22 members of the Intervale Posse. Nelson, along with four other young defendants caught in the raid, faced state charges, but his older Intervale cohorts were packed off to federal prisons for long terms. They became literal poster boys at Cease Fire sessions, with placards bearing their mug shots and prison sentences shown at the face-offs that followed. Nelson himself was released from the South Bay House of Correction last April after serving five months for a subsequent charge of gun possession. At South Bay, Nelson was identified as a candidate for the new re-entry program, but he wrapped up his sentence before he could be scheduled in. Less than three months later, Trina Persad was dead.

If police weren’t able to head off the feud between the MIC gang and the Big Head Boyz they say cost Trina Persad her life, they made quick work of the groups in the aftermath. “Once Cousin and Nelson got taken off the street, people started talking,” says Merner. As a result, police have brought various gun and drug charges against seven additional MIC members and six of the Big Head Boyz, including a teenager with whom Merner had recently exchanged gunplay pleasantries (See “On the prowl,”).

“We’ve pretty much decimated these two groups,” says Merner. “We’ve taken some of the worst.” Of those still on the streets, he says, “if nothing else, they’re hiding from each other and from us.”

Now, Boston police hope to drive some other bad actors into hiding, if they can’t get them behind bars. “We continue to see the same players over and over again,” says Evans. “That is who our strategy is directed at.” Between January and mid-October of last year, police made 353 firearms-related arrests in Boston, an increase of 20 percent over the same period in 2001, while shootings decreased by 23 percent–the fruit, says Evans, of the department’s targeting efforts. Those arrested had an average of 21 previous court appearances, and 82 percent had a previous gun charge. By mid-December, the city’s homicide stood at 55, 15 percent lower than the same point in 2001.

“You’re going to see results. You can bank on it.”

Police aren’t ready to declare victory in their effort to reverse the homicide and gun violence rise of recent years–and the fresh fears it has sown. But from the new re-entry program with inmates to the unsolved shootings project and prevention initiative in Grove Hall, Joyce says he’s convinced Boston is on the right track.

“You’re going to see results coming out in the next months and years from what we’re doing now,” says Joyce. “You can bank on it.”

Bobby Merner, whose Roxbury district recorded just two shootings over a six-week period during the fall, sees results already. But for him, they can’t come fast enough.

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.

Grove Hall is quiet on a chilly October night as Merner rolls down Quincy Street, past the park entrance where Trina Persad was gunned down. Asked if the work takes a toll on him, at first he changes the subject, focusing instead on the gains that have been made, the opening of the new Grove Hall Mall, and other improvements that many tie directly to the safer streets of recent years. Then he passes the shrine erected there in the days after Persad’s death, a weathered photograph of the 10-year-old girl and a stuffed rabbit still standing silent witness, and his tone changes.

“What pisses me off?” he says. “I don’t want to see any more memorials.”