The distrust of law enforcement, to the point of outright hostility, is evident to anyone who has talked recently to adolescent and young-adult males in Boston. It is a far, far worse attitude than that found on the same streets just five years ago, a change the department learned of from its survey of Bostonians conducted in late 2003, which was first disclosed by the Phoenix in January 2005. Satisfaction dropped most drastically in neighborhoods where most of the city’s youth live: East Boston, South Boston, Mattapan, Dorchester, and Roxbury. Fear of crime had also jumped since it was last surveyed in 2001, while the view of BPD officers as “fair and respectful to all people” declined sharply, especially among African-Americans.
Those who have had limited personal experience with criminal-law enforcement hold a general belief that criminals receive small punishments when caught doing minor crimes, and more serious punishment if proven to have committed more serious crimes. People in Dudley Square, Codman Square, Franklin Hill, and elsewhere know otherwise. Over and over again, law-enforcement agents decide first who to send away, and for how long, and then they do what they must to make it happen.
This has always happened episodically, but beginning in 2002 it became official BPD strategy, through the Unsolved Shootings Project. After concluding that witness reluctance meant that they could never actually solve shootings, law-enforcement partners decided to “search for other avenues through which they can apprehend impact players ... utilizing all possible legal levers,” as the department explained in a 2003 report.
That report, a lengthy description of the Unsolved Shootings Project for a national policing-award submission, boasts of how the strategy has worked in practice. After a shooting at Madison Park High School, for example, detectives zeroed in on three friends of the victim — “themselves well-known impact players,” who “clearly knew who the shooter was, but refused to cooperate.” To prevent these three from taking their own revenge, a prosecutor called them before a grand jury about the shooting, “and promptly charged them with perjury.”
“This use of perjury as a ‘lever’ was successful in averting a retaliatory shooting by getting three volatile impact players off the street,” the report says — ignoring the fact that the actual shooter was still free, while three people had been entrapped for doing nothing.
In another example, after three unsolved, non-fatal shootings in the Grove Hall neighborhood of Roxbury, police and their partners cracked the case by “using drug investigations and perjury charges against the suspects’ girlfriends to get the information they needed,” leading to two arrests. The report does not explain how they found those suspects, or how the girlfriends’ coerced testimony later played in court.
But when it comes to strong-arm tactics, brokered deals, and deciding guilt without trial, nobody touches US Attorney Michael Sullivan, appointed in 2001. As the Phoenix wrote last year, Sullivan’s heavy-handed federalization of Boston street crime is a major corrosive on law enforcement’s relationship with the community.