Two years ago, as 2003 was winding down, Boston’s political and law-enforcement leaders were crowing over their defeat of the homicide problem. After two years with troubling annual tallies in the 60s, the murder count had dropped back to 1996–2000 levels, when 35 to 40 had been the norm. Shootings became a non-issue, politically and in the media. When Boston’s police commissioner, Paul Evans, left for foggier pastures in England, the consensus was that the top concerns awaiting his replacement would be officer morale, security for the Democratic National Convention, and the recent uptick in robberies; a fourth issue, crowd control, was added after the February 1, 2004, post–Super Bowl debacle. In retrospect, though, the city’s victory over homicide was Boston’s version of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished.”
As the Phoenix cautioned at the time, 2003 was a pivotal year in crime, as a new cycle of youth-related violence began its current surge. That surge has seen 38 teenagers killed in the last two years.
City and law-enforcement officials are now trying to find some new version of the early 1990s’ “Boston Miracle,” when new law-enforcement and community-outreach strategies made the streets safe again. We’ll need one. Because all signs indicate that this wave of violence is still on the rise.
Amid a host of reasons why Boston’s bloodshed may continue, three stand out. Mayor Menino, Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole, and others know one of them — and they’ve known it for several years. The 2000 US Census counted 32,553 Boston residents age 10 to 14, up 22 percent from 1990. Count forward: they are now in their late teens. They were born in the middle of the crisis that preceded the “Boston Miracle” and have been disproportionately exposed to every risk factor identified in criminal-justice research. Add to that a homicide squad with a clearance rate of less than 30 percent, and a police department consistently losing the community’s trust (not helped by an administration that thinks fighting T-shirts will restore that trust), and you’ve got a recipe for destruction.
Every Chance to Fail
Here’s a brief recap of what was happening in inner-city Boston in the late 1980s: a crack-cocaine epidemic raged, bringing with it a surge of wrecked lives and gang violence. In response, the state’s incarceration rate doubled, primarily from the jailing of young men — which continued and even increased for years after the drug use and violence waned.
As a result, a disproportionate number of the children born in Boston in the mid-to-late ’80s spent time in single-parent households or in state custody. In the early and mid ’90s they attended failing Boston schools; when they reached middle and high school, national Republicans and their own governor Mitt Romney yanked away money for tutors, after-school programs, and summer jobs. Just as they approached the end of high school, the state slapped down the new MCAS requirement that, as predicted, drove up their dropout rate. When they eventually went looking for work, they discovered that the Boston area had shed nearly 4000 manufacturing jobs, 5500 retail jobs, 5500 government jobs, and 3000 nonprofessional service-sector jobs in 2002 alone, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.