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Murder rates rising, cities respond

By Sara B. MillerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 11, 2004


A recent spate of gun violence - including two incidents that dozens of children at city parks witnessed - has shaken Boston neighborhoods, leaving residents stunned and police and community leaders scrambling for a solution.

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Already this year, the city has recorded more homicides than last year's total of 41. More worrisome still are the victims' ages: To date, 23 people under age 24 have been killed. Experts say that gangs and drugs are likely culprits.

"I don't know what kids are thinking - kids killing kids," says Kathleen Jones, a resident of Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. She had brought 6 of her 10 grandchildren to a ribbon-cutting ceremony of a local playground last week. Hours earlier, a 15-year-old was grazed by a bullet in a nearby park while waiting for a pizza.

Ms. Jones is not alone in her disbelief. Urban centers nationwide, from Denver to Durham, N.C., are seeing a resurgence of gang activity and are struggling for ways to cope.

According to a report released by "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids," a group of 2,000 sheriffs, prosecutors, and crime survivors, youth-gang related homicides were up more than 50 percent from 1999 to 2002, the last year data is available.

In both Chicago and Los Angeles, gang activity accounts for approximately half of all homicides. But there is growing evidence that groups are also percolating in smaller urban areas, pushing up murder rates.

• Denver recorded its 49th homicide Aug. 4, which represents a 69 percent increase from the same period a year ago. Tim Twining, chief deputy of the gang unit in the district attorney's office in Denver, says the city has seen a spike in newer and younger gang members. A database currently lists 6,300 members in the area.

• In Durham, N.C., police say that at least half of the city's murders can be attributed to gangs, which have an estimated 3,000 members. The police department recently increased the number of officers in the gang resistance unit from seven to 20.

• Two months ago an antigang task force was established in northern Virginia, where Capt. John Crawford of the Alexandria Police Department says gang activity has been up throughout the region. The Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force spans many suburbs outside Washington D.C.

Prosecutors, community leaders, and academics say that less funding and, perhaps more important, a settled complacency - since crime numbers in many cities began to dip in the late 1990s - have left fertile ground for gangs to develop and expand.

"Ceaseless vigilance is the only way to protect communities from the destruction of gangs," says Mr. Twining. He says gang crime has resurfaced in recent years as antigang initiatives have been stripped back. Otherwise, he says, diminishing the destruction of gangs is like trying to tackle a waterbed. "You push down on one side, and the other side pops up. And you push down, and something else pops up."

A frightening scene for kids

In Boston, the daylight shooting of a basketball coach in front of his team of 11- to 15-year-olds, and the wounding of an 11-year-old during a tryout for a Pop Warner football team a week later, have been particularly unnerving for city residents this summer. "These were not kids involved in a rumble," says Sandy Martin, coordinator of the South End/Lower Roxbury Youth Workers' Alliance. "Parents generally feel OK if [their kids] are in at night, or with a large group. ....This is a different level."

Many experts say they are not surprised by surges in gang activity across the country. James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston who provided data for the recent "Stop Crime: Invest in Kids" report, says the confluence of many factors are at play.

There are more "at-risk" youths in neighborhoods, gang members have been released from prison back into society, more police resources go to national security rather than neighborhood crime, and many young people can't find jobs. "Young recruits weren't around 15 years ago, to witness the fact that joining a gang could mean an early grave," Mr. Fox says.

So they turn to the perceived security that gangs offer. "Gangs are exciting, status-conferring. [Young people] get protection, notoriety, a bond with other people," Fox says. "When you stop paying attention, [crime] rebounds, particularly with youth violence. There's a new generation of teenagers every five years."