Public Safety & Justice

Murder Mystery

In the 1990s, New York and Boston achieved dramatic decreases in homicide. One of them is still improving. The other is getting worse again. Why?
by | June 2002

Two dozen young African-American men, wearing orange, blue and tan jumpsuits, are sitting in a semi-circle in a room at the Suffolk County House of Corrections in Boston. They are there because they are about to be released from prison, and because they are former gang members at high risk of returning to crime.

Sitting across from them is a whole battery of ministers, social workers, police and local and federal prosecutors. Each of them has something to offer the inmates. The ministers tell them about a mentoring program. The social workers say they can help arrange child support payments, get them IDs or driver's licenses, and find transitional living arrangements.

Then the prosecutors take over. Theirs is a different message: We're watching you, and if you return to your former lifestyle, we'll be there to make sure you regret it. "There are two messages," says Kurt Francois, who works for a program called the Safe Neighborhood Reentry Initiative: "It's time to change, and if you don't, you will bear the consequences."

There, in a nutshell, is Boston-style policing. It is based on an unusual collaboration between law enforcement agencies, social service organizations and local churches. It has given the city one of the nation's most admired police departments. Lately, however, local residents have been asking a blunt question: Does it really work?

Five years ago, the question would have seemed absurd. Between 1990 and 1999, as the Boston approach took hold, the city's homicide rate fell by 80 percent. Of course, other cities experienced big crime drops too, including some cities that did little in the way of innovative policing. But only two--Boston and New York--saw murder rates fall by double-digit figures year after year.

Both Boston and New York attributed the decline to new--and very different--approaches to policing. In New York, the police emphasized "quality of life" law enforcement, focusing on minor property and nuisance offenses as a key to serious crimes, and developed a high- tech mapping and accountability system to track police performance. Boston did some of that, but its emphasis was elsewhere: on the partnerships between police and parole officers, community leaders, "streetworkers," academics and ministers.

Because both systems produced impressive numbers, both departments became models for reform-minded policing across the country. But in the eyes of many, Boston had a clear edge: Whereas New York's reduced crime rate came at the cost of growing tension between police and minority activists, Boston accomplished the same result while police relations with the African-American community actually improved. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno called it "the Boston Miracle."

It was almost too good to be true. And then the numbers started changing. Boston's homicide rate began creeping up again. It took a while for most of the country to notice, but New York noticed very quickly. Last December, in his nationally televised farewell address, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made a pointed comparison. "In the last statistics put out by the FBI," the mayor said, "there has been a 67 percent increase in murder in Boston. During that same period of time, there was a 12 percent decrease in the city of New York. I don't know, which policing theory would you want to follow?" And then Giuliani answered his own question: "The reality is that the model that was adopted for dealing with crime in New York City is the very, very best way to assure that you can keep a city safe."

Officials in Boston wrote these remarks off as personal pettiness. "A shallow boast," sniffed the Boston Globe editorial board. "I can't tell you why he did it," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. "Maybe it was frustration because he wishes he could continue the job."

Whatever the motive, Giuliani's figures were accurate. In the past two years, Boston's homicide rate has increased by more than 100 percent. At the same time, the rate in New York City has continued to fall. Clearly, something must be going on. The question is what.

Does Boston's rising homicide rate reflect problems with the Boston model itself, as Giuliani charges, or is Boston suffering from new demographic trends that other cities can soon expect to see? It's a question whose answer has major implications for police departments around the nation. Looking at Boston and New York's divergent police styles isn't a bad way to begin studying this question.

Boston and New York began with a common problem. In the late 1980s and early '90s, both experienced a frightening epidemic of murder. In 1990, New York's homicide total hit the staggering number of 2,245-- quadruple the figure in the 1960s. That same year, homicides in Boston reached 152--a number that sounds modest at first but in fact was almost identical to New York's on a per capita basis.

And the problem seemed certain only to get worse. "If there are two thousand murders this year," warned New York newspaper columnist Pete Hamill, "get ready for four thousand." A Time magazine survey found that 59 percent of New Yorkers would move out of town if they could. To many, it seemed the police had simply relinquished control of the streets to criminals.

The New York strategy was born in the waning days of Mayor David Dinkins' administration, when Commissioner Raymond Kelly publicly embraced the "broken windows" philosophy of policing, which held that "disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked." Kelly began with an aggressive crackdown on the notorious "squeegee men" who harassed the city's commuters.

The new approach wasn't enough to save Dinkins; he was unseated by Giuliani in November 1993. But Giuliani embraced "broken windows" and steadily built upon it. He replaced Kelly with William Bratton, the former Boston police commissioner, and Bratton added the critical innovation called Compstat.

The brainchild of Bratton's chief crime strategist, the late Jack Maple, Compstat married the idea of crime mapping with a new focus on precinct commander performance. Every week, precinct commanders from one of New York's eight patrol boroughs would come before the department's top brass to discuss the crime trends in their precincts. Commanders who failed to show sufficient familiarity with those trends, or who failed to come up with strategies for solving the problems, were quickly reassigned or demoted--two-thirds of the city's precinct commanders in all. The crime rate plummeted.

Criminologists continued to debate the effect of "broken windows" policing and Compstat, but the homicide rate continued to go down. It was 1,177 in 1995, 770 in 1997, 664 in 1999. Compstat quickly became one of the most admired innovations in American policing in decades.

But in the midst of the good news, some New Yorkers began to see a dark side to the aggressive style of policing that the New York system encouraged. Former Mayor Dinkins complained to the press that Bratton and Giuliani "seem more interested in 'kicking ass' than increasing peace." In 1999, when members of the elite Street Crimes Unit opened fire on Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, much of New York's African-American leadership came out to protest against the NYPD.

Boston wasn't having those sorts of problems. And its murder rate was falling just as dramatically, from 152 in 1990 to 31 in 1999. Police officials there were quick to assert that the reason was their law enforcement philosophy, based on social service and neighborhood relations, not on the cold statistics and hard-nosed street tactics of the cops in New York. "It wasn't just tough enforcement," says Commissioner Paul Evans. "It was going out to the community, trying to prevent crime, trying to identify alternatives for young people, after-school programs, jobs." In short, he argues, it was the result of an extraordinary web of partnerships between local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, nonprofit organizations and social service agencies, and the city's African-American clergy.

The Boston strategy emerged, unlike New York's, not so much from numbers but from one horrifying event. In May 1992, a group of youths burst in on a funeral being held for a slain gang member at Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan. In the presence of 300 panicked witnesses, the youths repeatedly stabbed one of the mourners, whose presence they viewed as an insult to the deceased.

Boston responded to the Morning Star attack (and a string of youth homicides that followed) with a flurry of programs and partnerships, such as the 10 Point Coalition, a group of African-American ministers who decided to reach out to kids on the street and put aside their distrust of the police. The homicide rate started going down, but rather slowly. Between 1992 and late 1996, it declined to 70 deaths per year--a big improvement from 1990, but more than twice as many as the city's historical average.

Then in mid-1996, Boston's police added something new to its network of partnerships--the idea of "focused deterrence." It was the inspiration of an unlikely coalition: front-line police officers from the Youth Violence Strike Force; a neighborhood probation office; the Department of Youth Services; the Streetworkers, a youth outreach program; the FBI and Drug Enforcement Administration; the U.S. Attorney and county D.A.; and researchers from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Focused deterrence" began not with social work but with the recognition that a relatively small number of hard-core gang members were responsible for most of the carnage in Boston.

At first, this was a discouraging finding: These hard-core offenders scarcely seemed the type who would walk away from drug-dealing and gun-running for a temporary summer job. But officers in Boston decided to turn these kids' very criminality against them. Because these kids were so criminally active, they could potentially be deterred or punished in a number of ways. As the officers put it, there were "a lot of levers to pull." Kids who were on probation could be supervised more closely; kids who had been referred to the Department of Youth Services could be taken into protective custody and even transferred to rural western Massachusetts; kids who were repeat offenders could be subjected to federal prosecution and sent out of state.

The Youth Violence Strike Force had achieved good results using a limited trial of focused deterrence on a gun-happy Cape Verdean gang on Boston's crime-plagued Wendover Street: not only had there been an immediate drop in gun-related incidents, but many kids gave up their weapons voluntarily. Now the same approach was employed citywide, with police, probation officers and prosecutors all warning gang members that gun violence would bring down on them the full attention not only of local authorities but of the U.S. Attorney's Office, the DEA and the ATF.

This marked a major change from the way Boston police had dealt with homicide "hot spots" in the past. "Years ago," said Commissioner Evans, "we'd have shootings in neighborhoods and we'd do saturation patrols and warrant sweeps and we were going after anybody and everybody. Now... we know what's going on; we know who's involved in the shooting; we call them all in; they're all on probation; we use the levers. We tell them, 'Fellows, the violence stops.... We're not going to let you kill each other.'"

In August 1996, Boston police and federal agents arrested 21 members of the Intervale Posse, one of Boston's most notorious gangs. Then, in a series of forums with other gangs in the city, the Ceasefire group quickly got the word out: If the shooting doesn't stop, this will happen to you, too. One notorious gangster found with a single bullet in his possession was sent to federal prison for 10 years. Soon the city's homicide rate was in a gratifying freefall.

Boston isn't the only city where this sort of intervention worked. Minneapolis, a city not normally associated with violent crime, experienced an explosion of gang-related violence in the mid-1990s. In 1997, it responded with a Ceasefire program. The same thing happened as in Boston--homicides fell dramatically. The city ended the year with 58 murders, down from 86 the previous year. In Stockton, California, gang-related killings fell from 20 to four with Boston- style tactics. Indianapolis and the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, reported similar results.

New York, meanwhile, was finding equal success with its different emphasis. Maple, the NYPD's chief strategist, stressed four guiding principles: "accurate and timely intelligence," "rapid deployment," "effective tactics and strategies" and "relentless follow-up and assessment." Partnerships and reeducation meetings were not at the top of his list of effective methods.

Nearly all the media coverage of New York's declining crime rate stressed Compstat and the constant use of computer data. But within the department, many believed that the key element in keeping crime down was the fourth one on Maple's list: follow-up.

"We're great at initiatives, but it's the follow-up that's crucial," notes Elizabeth Glazer, chief of staff of the New York City Department of Investigation. "What Compstat does is ensure that there's always follow-up."

And that may offer a partial clue to the puzzling discrepancy between Boston and New York crime rates in the past couple of years. Researchers who have studied Ceasefire-style interventions say they are weak when it comes to follow-up. They tend to produce dramatic initial results--and then fall apart. "They're hard to sustain," admits Harvard criminologist David Kennedy. "They take an awful lot of assembly. They're basically simple, but it takes a lot of moving parts to put it together. Some are so dramatically effective that there comes a time when there's really not much work to do. People gather around a table and ask each other, 'Has there been any violence?' People say, 'No,' and if that goes on long enough, the partnership weakens. Violence picks up and people move on, and the script has been forgotten."

As Boston's homicide rate was plunging in the late '90s, the Ceasefire group met less frequently. Key players were promoted or moved on to other tasks. The grant that had supported work on the program at the Kennedy School was phased out. While the Youth Violence Strike Force continued to hold an occasional Ceasefire forum, the gang members no longer received the sustained "focused deterrence" they once did. They didn't seem to need it.

In retrospect, it seems they may have needed it after all. By the spring of 2000, Boston's violent crime remission was over. After years of decreases, the number of gun incidents in the gang strongholds of Roxbury and Dorchester started to creep up again. The increased gunplay soon translated into a rising homicide rate. In 2000, Boston had 40 homicides. In 2001, the number jumped to 66.

There are plenty of explanations for that change that avoid the issue of police tactics altogether, and stress demographics. Many believe, for example, that the return of homicide is connected to convicts completing their prison terms and returning to their old neighborhood, settling old feuds and trying to regain control of the drug trade.

"You want my quick and dirty analysis for the jump in the numbers?" probation officer Billy Stewart told the Boston Herald. "Simple: They're b-a-a-ck! ... and they're back smarter. They're back embittered. And that seasoned bitterness makes them extremely dangerous."

Some statistics do buttress this argument. A decade ago, the average age of the city's homicide perpetrators was between 20 and 25. Last year, the department says, it was 31. The average age of inmates released from the Suffolk County House of Correction in January 2001 was 32--considerably older than the prison population a decade ago. "When you look at the Boston Miracle or the Boston model," says Commissioner Evans, "it was really geared toward youth violence. Now what we've seen in the last year is a much older individual."

On the other hand, the release of prisoners back into the community is hardly a new phenomenon. The prisoner population at the Suffolk County House of Corrections peaked in 1999, when approximately 3,700 offenders were released. It's possible that these ex-cons are behind Boston's recent murder increase, but commanders in the field discount the notion. "I can look at some neighborhoods--Bowdoin, Geneva--a couple of guys got out of jail, and we saw things happen," says Captain Robert Dunford, "but in terms of citywide, no."

In contrast to the "ex-con" theory, some analysts say the explanation for increased homicide is exactly the opposite: a tough new batch of young kids. Back in the mid-1990s, criminologists such as James Alan Fox and John DiIulio were warning of a whole generation of "super predators"--teenage criminals more ruthless and more dangerous than any cohort that preceded them. "Although we would never use the term 'super predator,'" says the Reverend Eugene Rivers, co-chair of the National 10 Point Leadership Foundation, "this kid that we [have seen] emerging fits that description of that uncertain term.... A younger cohort of more violent young people [have been] surfacing."

There are problems with this explanation as well. Boston's youth population was growing steadily throughout the '90s, even as crime began to fall. In 1991, the percentage of homicide victims aged 24 and under (victim numbers generally track perpetrator numbers pretty well) was 48 percent. Last year, it was 41 percent. The story is much the same nationwide. According to a March report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., the youth population increased by 13 percent between 1990 and 2000. During that same period, the juvenile crime rate fell by a third, to its lowest level in two decades.

Given the inconsistencies in both of the demographic theories, it begins to seem more plausible to return to the issue of police strategy. And this is just what Boston is doing. However, rather than reinvigorating its efforts at "focused deterrence," the Boston police department seems to be redoubling its efforts at building partnerships, expanding social services and involving the community in the fight against crime.

This past January, the Boston police department laid out what it calls "Boston Strategy Part 2." It calls for redoubling the department's emphasis on "prevention, enforcement and intervention," for pushing more authority to the district commander level, and for creating a new law enforcement community coordinating group to direct the department's actions. "You can see with all of our strategies, we're not moving away from partnerships," says Superintendent Paul Joyce. "You can't put the responsibility of dealing with crime issues on the police or on the probation officer; it's really too much."

That's the kind of sentiment that Giuliani and his police commissioners scoffed at. "I'm from the school of thought that the average citizen doesn't want to be engaged in patrolling their own neighborhood," says Bratton, the police commissioner who first introduced community policing to Boston in the early '90s, before becoming Giuliani's first commissioner in 1993. "When I come home at night, I don't want to be looking over my shoulder or coming upstairs to get my flashlight, my armband, and go out and patrol the neighborhood. That's what the police are for." Indeed, the idea that the police couldn't reduce crime on their own was one of the ideas that Giuliani and Bratton set out to demolish. When Bratton was appointed police commissioner, he promised Giuliani that under his watch the NYPD would reduce crime by 30 percent in three years--and it did.

The NYPD doesn't exactly repudiate the partnership idea. "It's critical," says Deputy Commissioner Michael Farrell, "that there be productive relationships with communities, particularly with cities that have as much diversity in their makeup as we do." On the other hand, Farrell acknowledges, the department's emphasis continues to be placed on those strategies it believes are working: Compstat and quality of life.

Boston police are hopeful that their new efforts will work, too. They say they're encouraged by early indications that the homicide increases are leveling off in 2002. They're optimistic that initiatives such as the prisoner reentry program and the ongoing efforts to provide more resources to district commanders will further depress crime rates.

Still, Superintendent Joyce doubts that Boston will soon return to the homicide levels of a couple of years ago. "Most likely, we've seen our best days," he admits. "Crime will move up. It's how you monitor that and how you deal with that as crime trends start to move up again."

Meanwhile, in the first quarter of 2002, the homicide rate in New York City was down another 29 percent.

John Buntin
John Buntin  |  staff writer
jbuntin@governing.com  | 

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