The painful truth

Boston’s murder crisis underscores the need to reform its police force
By EDITORIAL  |  April 4, 2007


If it is painful to try to make sense of the ongoing plague of murders afflicting neighborhoods in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, try to imagine what it is like to live there.

Life is already tough in these poor and working-class areas. For many of the 200,000 or so who live there, the simple acts of making ends meet, raising a family, and getting an education are challenges.

We all know that life is unfair. But when the intrinsic inequities of birth are compounded by a relatively small — probably no more than a couple hundred — group of criminals, what are the rest of us to think? To expect? To do?

These are questions with inadequate and unsatisfactory answers.

The headlines of the last several days have been particularly grim, but this is a problem — in truth, a set of interdependent problems — that is more than three years old.

Despite his foolish and even irresponsible statements that the press should ignore the crisis and focus on happy news, Mayor Menino knows better.

A huge part of the problem is due to years of budget cuts sponsored in Washington and on Beacon Hill by President George W. Bush and former governor Mitt Romney, both — not surprisingly — Republicans. But on the state level, the Democrats pass budgets.

As a result of these budgets, needed social services have been cut, already anemic criminal-rehabilitation programs have withered, and fewer police have been assigned to the streets.

There was little Menino could do to fix this problem. But what he could do, he failed to do: to ensure that the police who were on the job in Boston did the best job they could. On this count, Menino failed. Even when the murder rate was not at crisis levels, the Boston police’s murder-arrest rate trailed the national big-city average by more than 10 percent.

Nationally, big-city police make arrests in 60 percent of all homicide cases. Last year in Boston, arrests were made in barely 30 percent of all murders.

But the news is even worse than that. The average age of the typical Boston murder victim over the past 10 years is around 28. So far this year, the oldest victim was 27 and the average age of those murdered is 20. In Boston the young die young.

There is reason to think that the failure to arrest and convict gunmen has resulted in their becoming bolder, with more daylight shootings and more shootings in groups.

There is also reason to think that the shooters are improving their skills. First-time shooters usually inflict fewer fatalities: they are nervous and aim poorly; they shoot from a distance, shoot on the run, and fire fewer shots before fleeing.

More experienced gunmen use more powerful weapons, and are better, steadier shots. In the past, 15 percent of all shootings were fatal. This year, so far, the number is 21 percent.

A source of great official frustration is the fact that so few are willing to cooperate with police. Fear — fear of reprisal — is, of course, a principle reason.

But City Hall’s power structure seems to have conveniently forgotten that the public, according to the police department’s own 2003 survey, was losing confidence in the police at the very time police were in need of cooperation.

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