The war over peace

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  February 5, 2010

StreetSafe proponent-participants — including Detective French, Reverend Brown (who is also pastor of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge), and Lewis — emphasize the need for partnerships throughout the hour-long production. When the multi-prong Operation Ceasefire project and its myriad components (including remnants of Operation Night Light) effectively cooled blocks in the mid-to-late 1990s, the outcome was widely considered the result of communications opening between all parties that regularly interact with youthful offenders. Hopeful to achieve that end once again, the egos of those onstage appear to be in check; there has been friction between Brown and Lewis in the past, but there is no apparent tension on the set.

In his turn, Lewis explains the dynamics tooled specifically for StreetSafe, which is rooted in the synthesis that was central to Operation Ceasefire, but is unique in its focus. Since the majority of violent crime occurs in specific and predictable areas — particularly a 1.5-mile stretch of Blue Hill Avenue responsible for 70 percent of the city's shootings — this program targets just those sections of the South End, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Dorchester. TBF currently employs 16 streetworkers to patrol around known culprits in statistically defined, conflict-ridden pockets. Some StreetSafe peacemakers are themselves convicted criminals; and while the use of gang-savvy delegates has been successful in many cities (and to some extent here in Boston), such intervention fronts remain highly contentious nonetheless.

Though refocused on their challenge, the commanders behind StreetSafe are up against some alarming trends. According to a recent Northeastern University study, since January 1, 2000, Boston has led all but five other major American cities in young black men killing one another. In addition to a steady slew of shootings, youth jobs are under the budget axe, and public confidence in one of TBF's most important allies, the BPD, may be at its lowest point in years. Nearly 20 percent of minority Boston residents questioned in 2006 (the last survey available) had unfavorable opinions of police. At the same time, complaints against officers — for disrespect and excessive force — remain above the 300-per-year mark, where it has been since the number was first registered in 1993.

There's also concern that TBF workers are, ironically, at odds with the 25 to 30 workers who report to Boston Centers for Youth & Families (CYF), a city agency.

Personnel on both teams work unarmed and in the way of harm for less than $35,000 in yearly wages. This past August, city streetworker William Harvey was shot in the head while on duty, and is now having difficulty recovering and paying bills on his meager disability compensation.

But while CYF and TBF workers share a mission, that doesn't mean they are always on the same page. Some attribute the disconnection to the media hype that StreetSafe agents have received; others blame jealousy incurred by TBF-issue Timberland boots and snappy uniforms; most blame StreetSafe leaders for neglecting to embrace partners.

Since city CYF streetworkers primarily walk afternoon beats — and TBF forces come out at night — the two groups might actually benefit from alignment.

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