Murder rates rising, cities respond

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

In Durham, police have ratcheted up efforts to stem waves of gang violence. On Monday, Police Chief Steve Chalmers announced a new antigun effort aimed in part to thwart the increase in gang violence. In Durham County, where 84 percent of the drug-trafficking is run by gangs, finances are troubling. The sheriff loudly complained this summer when a request to build a gang task force failed to make it into the budget.

Cities across the country have tried different methods to bring homicide rates, and gang violence, to a minimum. In Milwaukee, where the murder rate to date is 54, compared to 61 at the same time last year, a community police effort has been put in place, which is intended to bridge the police to local residents, including the faith community.

In Cincinnati, local authorities are experimenting with a show of force in troubled neighborhoods. Since last year, the police department has sent 100 extra cops to violent-prone spots across the city for a couple days each month.

The move is a response to a homicide rate that has increased every year since 2000. To date the city has recorded 46 homicides, up from 40 in the same period the year before. Sgt. Lisa Thomas says most of it is drug rather than gang-related.

Boston has tried its own version of community policing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when residents faced gun battles on the streets all too often, David Kennedy of Harvard University helped create "Operation Ceasefire." The strategy was simple, he says: Police and street workers focused on, and punished, the whole group, instead of going after certain individuals.

In 1990, the murder rate in Boston had spiked to 152. In 1999, it was down to 31. And the youth homicide rate went down by two-thirds. The strategy was later deemed a national model and as many as a dozen cities, from Rochester, N.Y., to Stockton, Calif., have implemented similar models since then. "Lots of other places have made this work, and where you do stick with it, it pays off," he says.

Boston, like other cities, has backed down from those initiatives, though. In response to recent violence, police announced "Operation Neighborhood Shield" Friday night, in which state police, the FBI, and other federal agencies have increased patrols across the city. Fifty-four people were arrested over the weekend.

Meanwhile, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino is closing city parks down at 11 p.m., is working with community leaders to expand youth programs across the city, and is planning on using camera surveillance to monitor activity in the city's "hot spots," according to spokesman Seth Gitell.

Many community leaders call this a band-aid that, although welcome, doesn't address deeper issues. Ms. Martin says that more youth programs, especially those that break down "turf" issues for neighborhood children, are needed to build the confidence in adolescents to choose not to join gangs.

The community is also integral to help witnesses step forward, a chronic problem for prosecutors of gang violence. "There is a fear of retaliation, particularly if [residents] end up being called as witnesses in a court trial," says Alfred Blumstein, a criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

This silence is something the Rev. Ray Hammond, cofounder of the Ten Point Coalition, which began intervening in Boston's gang problem in 1992, knows well. He is working with communities to increase efforts begun in May, such as "cease-fire meetings" with potential gang members and home visits with at-risk teens. On Friday night, he walked around communities talking to residents outside, a weekly event that he hopes more churches will become involved in.

"In the community, people know who is causing on the trouble," he says. "What we learn is to be patient.... We are not going to be run off the playground."

On the beat in Boston

At Ramsay Park, where the basketball coach was gunned down, Sgt. Karen Ahren of the Boston Municipal Police says one of their major concerns is getting the community to come forward.

"People are saying, 'It's hard for us to come forward and talk to you guys, because then we'll get a knock on our door.' " Nearby a memorial of candles, teddy bears, and letters draws passersby. On a tree a sign reads, "Stop the Violence."

Alden Cadwell, a summer camp director at Carter Playground, where the 11-year-old was hit by a stray bullet, says some parents pulled their children out of his camp immediately, but most did not.

On a recent afternoon, a police car patrolled the field where children played kick ball and football. It was a typical summer day.

Almost.

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report from North Carolina.

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