Ethnic Groups, Police Confront Each Other in the Hub

Everybody's talking about race friction, the politics of patronage, white police, black gangs, and a record murder rate on city streets - a letter from Boston

A recent issue of the Boston Herald, the local Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid, featured none of the usual large Page 1 photos. Instead, it printed a list of names of the 133 murder victims up to that date in the city of Boston in 1990.

A day later, the list of victims had grown to 136, breaking the city's record for the number of murders in one year. The previous record was 135, set in 1973; now the new figure stands at 137.

It's not New York, of course: Police there estimated Monday that more than 2,000 people have been murdered there this year, also a record. But the city of Boston has a population of only about 600,000 compared with more than 7.3 million in the Big Apple.

Outraged Hispanics, outraged police

All last week Boston was buzzing over the death of 19-year-old Hector Morales, who was killed after he opened fire on two policemen with a sawed-off shotgun. He wounded both officers before he was shot.

The Hispanic community was outraged. Some witnesses claimed that the officers had continued to fire at Mr. Morales after he was down and allegedly pleading for his life. Hispanics say it fits a pattern of police harassment and brutality against them.

This outraged the police in turn. They say the officers barely escaped with their lives and continued to fire only in self-defense.

The controversy followed on the heels of the revelation that Kimberly Rae Harbour, whose body was found in a field near a city housing project a few weeks back, had been brutally raped and murdered, allegedly by a gang of about eight ``wilding'' youths.

The black community reacted angrily to the news that police had kept silent about the brutality Ms. Harbour suffered while they gathered enough information to arrest the alleged attackers - all black, as was the victim. Some said the police should have warned the neighborhood that a group of toughs was on the loose.

The police responded that their silence was necessary to the success of the investigation. Reportedly, the youths were running around the housing complex bragging about what they had done.

Boston police say murders committed with guns in the first three months of the year rose 69 percent over the same period last year. The city is awash in illegal weapons. One source in the district attorney's office told me earlier this year that many of the guns are being smuggled into the commonwealth from Georgia, where gun laws are more lax.

Mayor Raymond Flynn and Police Commission Francis Roache have come under heavy criticism for their management of the police and poor police-minority relations. In part, this is one of the sad legacies of Boston's historic ethnic frictions and patronage politics.

The Hub has a long history of ethnic segregation and lack of interaction between ethnic groups. The Yankees treated the Irish immigrants in the early 1800s like lepers. The cold shoulder has been handed down from ethnic group to ethnic group ever since.

South Boston Irish continue to dominate city government. Blacks and Hispanics feel they have little control over their neighborhoods or city policies.

Perhaps nowhere is the ethnic friction so visible as in the antics of the Boston School Committee, which fired Laval Wilson, the city's first black school superintendent, in February. While white members said Mr. Wilson was ousted over differences in management style, blacks blamed racism.

The School Committee then formed a 29-member panel and hired a consultant to search for a new superintendent. Over the last two weeks, three of the five finalists have either removed themselves or been removed from consideration. One was found to have been fired from his last job. Another, who was thought to be black, turned out to be white. A third candidate took a look at the controversy, threw up his hands, and withdrew. Critics skewered the search committee because there were no women or Hispanic finalists. On Friday the embarrassed panel voted to start all over. Officials increase efforts

City, state, and federal officials met last week to increase their efforts to stop the street killings. The state legislature has passed a bill that will allow more juveniles to be tried as adults. Mayor Flynn is considering imposing a curfew, but says he won't do it without public support, and even then not before spring.

And the city announced Thursday that 10 agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and additional state police officers will participate in a new effort to confiscate illegal handguns. Offenders will be charged under federal law.

But this year's murder rate is more than the result of too many drugs, too many guns, too many domestic quarrels. It's evidence of a breakdown in civilization, in community. One way to help end spiraling crime would be for Boston to get past the politics that pit one ethnic group against another and create a larger sense of community for all the city's residents. The police can't do their job well unless they are partners with the people they are trying to protect.

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