How Boston escaped the national spike in homicides

It’s been a grim companion to the death toll of COVID-19: While the virus has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, homicide rates have also been soaring nationally. Homicides rose by 30 percent in 2020, the largest single-year increase on record. Last year saw a smaller increase, but still an upward trend. 

While cities across the country have set all-time records for homicides in 2021, Boston stands out as one of the few exceptions among large cities. In 2020, Boston recorded 56 homicides, pretty close to its five-year average of 51. What’s more, last year that number fell to just 40. To put that in some perspective, Baltimore, with nearly 100,000 fewer residents than Boston, had almost 10 times that number of homicides – 337 last year. 

Public safety officials are always quick to say that one homicide is too many. Boston’s first homicide of 2022, the January 2 shooting of 16-year-old Jucelena Gomes, cast that into tragic focus. But the city’s extremely low homicide rate compared with other US cities is extraordinarily good news – and something we don’t stop to consider quite enough. 

Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Council on Criminal Justice and chair of its Violent Crime Working Group, said Boston has developed over the last several decades a community-focused approach to policing along with a rich network of grass-roots organizations working to stem violence. Boston “has really learned the benefits of not having a sort of all of one or all of the other approach,” Abt said on this week’s Codcast

He was joined by Tito SantosSilva, the executive director of Boston Uncornered, an innovative program that provides intensive mentoring to gang-involved youth – and a stipend to support them and their families – while they pursue community college credits toward a degree and a career track that can provide a family-sustaining income. 

“The reality is very few people ever pick up a firearm when they’re functioning in a good, healthy space in a healthy community, in a space where they feel safe and comfortable,” said SantosSilva. “I think Boston has done a great job, and we’re going to continue to do a great job, of really meeting our young people where they are and connecting and working together to heal our city.”

Abt said the enormous spike in homicides in many other cities has been driven by what he calls “a perfect storm of factors at the national level.” He said that includes the stress of the pandemic on elements of the criminal justice and health system, the forced shutdown of many community-based programs because of the pandemic, and the surge in gun sales. 

On top of all that, he said, has been the social unrest and protests following police killings of Black Americans, especially after the May 2020 death of George Floyd. “Those events have really created a crisis of confidence in American policing, and they have really driven cops and communities apart,” said Abt. “That is a huge impediment to effective gun violence reduction, because what we know is that the police are absolutely essential to reducing gun violence, but that they can’t do it alone and that there have to be partnerships between police, residents, and community groups. And those partnerships in this hyper-polarized environment are just harder than ever before.” 

Abt said the Boston police certainly aren’t perfect, but the city benefits – and lower gun violence is part of that – by the department having “better relationships with community members than you see in many other places.” 

As for the community outreach efforts that have been hampered nationally by COVID, SantosSilva said Boston Uncornered has worked hard to stay connected to the young people it works with throughout the pandemic.  

“We can text, we can call them, we can FaceTime with them, we can reach out,” he said. “And in some cases, they live in the same neighborhood [as the Boston Uncornered mentors]. So I can walk by your house and see you from outside. You stay on your porch, I stay on the street and just check in with you.” 

“I think sometimes we take that for granted,” he said, “but having somebody who is going to love you and care for you and support you with unconditional love and support, I think, was really what allowed us to continue to do the work in the pandemic and just shift a little bit to support where they needed it.”

Both SantosSilva and Abt said Boston has an opportunity to signal a further embrace of the community-oriented strategy for dealing with violence prevention with the impending selection of a new police commissioner who is committed to that approach. 

Abt also warned against moves that he said could be counter-productive in the effort to keep gun violence down – and reduce it further still. He argued that eliminating the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, or BRIC, which Mayor Michelle Wu has voiced support for, would be a big mistake. He said the unit’s focus on identifying “those who are most likely to become victims or perpetrators of gun violence” is vital. 

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.

He disputed the idea that the BRIC database has been misused, as such approaches have been in some places. “One of the things that we need to do in order to shrink the intrusiveness of the law enforcement system is to be very, very targeted and to be pro data and pro science,” he said. “And so I just hope that folks recognize that Boston is a special place and that, while people have concerns, they should really look for actual problems before they throw stuff out.”