A MOUNTING toll of young murder victims has stunned the residents of the Dorchester area of Boston and has set local leaders and city officials scrambling for solutions. Beset by almost nightly violence, Dorchester residents have been considering a number of tactics including tougher penalties for juvenile offenders, greater community action, and a more visible police presence.
The shooting death of Junior Fernandez, 16, killed in front of his father's grocery store here, was a catalyst for Dorchester's effort. But he is only one of more than 300 shooting victims (22 killed) in Boston this year. A high percentage of these shootings involve teenagers, often blacks.
The violence - much of it gang related - has been concentrated in a southern part of Boston that includes Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. Residents, including youngsters unconnected with gangs, feel increasingly threatened.
``They were afraid to walk on the streets'' after the Fernandez shooting, says Hector Torres, 18, a friend of Junior. Hector and his friends say they stay out of trouble in the afternoons by going to the Dorchester Youth Collaborative to play basketball. Several gangs linked to drug distribution frequent the area, they say.
This troubled community is not alone in seeking answers to the problem of youth violence.
The number of aggravated assault cases around the country - including shootings and other forms of violence - has risen dramatically over the past seven years, according to James Ginger, deputy director of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C., an advocacy group.
``The general consensus is that if a given city doesn't have a problem with drug-related youth violence, it's on the way,'' he says.
Cities around the country are grappling with this issue. Increased citizen involvement with police, and tougher action against violent drug activity are two themes that emerge:
In Tampa, residents cooperate with a team of plainclothes officers, known as the Quad Squad, that has a unit in each quadrant of the city. The information participants give, using a beeper to contact the squad, has led to 2,400 arrests since the program began last February.
In Atlanta, the Red Dog Anti-Drug Task Force routes out drugs in high-crime areas. The team is made up of 24 physically fit men and women who undergo advanced legal training in anti-drug tactics, warrants, search, and seizure. The program has resulted in 600 arrests each month, according to police stastics.
Here in Dorchester, some neighborhoods are moving toward such community-police cooperation. Residents of the largely white Pope's Hill section packed a high school cafeteria recently to discuss the shooting death of a 15-year old boy robbed on a nearby street last month.
The group voted to establish a neighborhood crime watch to monitor suspicious activity and reduce fear. Residents also applauded a motion to encourage officers to use a stop-and-frisk policy on nearby streets. Some people at the meeting even sported buttons that said ``Frisk Me'' in bold letters.
People are concerned about their normally quiet section of Dorchester. Barbara McDonough of Pope's Hill, who was distributing information at the meeting, says people are shocked. ``It's frightening to all of us,'' says the 27-year resident.
While a stop and frisk policy might allay concern at Pope's Hill, the tactic has incensed Boston's black population. The issue came to the fore last fall, when police strip-searched black males while hunting for the murderer of a white victim, Carol Stuart.
Leroy James, a young black man in Dorchester, complains that the previous night police ``had me take off my jacket and started patting me down.
``They need to stop that search-and-seizure,'' he says heatedly, pounding his fist. ``Sometimes they take it out of control.''
Meanwhile, local politicians talk tough about cracking down on youth violence. State Sen. Paul White of Dorchester is pushing a bill to require juveniles over 14 years of age to be tried as adults in cases of murder and repeat violent felonies. Senator White also calls for stricter enforcement of the state's gun law, tougher penalties for those convicted of using a weapon, and measures to reduce witness intimidation in the city's courthouses.
Fifty to 60 percent of the youth violence cases brought before the Dorchester District Court are dismissed because of witness intimidation, Judge James Dolan estimates. In the case of Junior Fernandez, some aquaintances of the victim say the boy's older brother, who had testified in a previous shooting case, may have been the intended target.
Judge Dolan does not object to trying violent juveniles as adults, but says sometimes it is not appropriate to put a minor in prison. The sentencing judge should have the option of sending the child to the state's Department of Youth Services instead, he says.
Stressing the need for quick trials and severe punishment for violent crime, the judge says ``it's a question of trying to provide a more meaningful deterrent.''
While agreeing the community wants and needs tough public safety measures, black leaders such as City Councilor Bruce Bolling say Boston must provide ``alternatives to getting involved in drugs and gangs.'' Mr. Bolling cites high dropout rates and the need for employment training in areas ravaged by crime.
To restore trust between police and the community, ``the issue of stop-and-frisk needs to be confronted head-on,'' he says.
Some criminal justice experts agree stricter law enforcement alone is not the answer. Society needs to consider why inner-city youth turn to crime in the first place, says James Fox, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston.
Rather than beefing up police on city streets by 10 percent, for example, communities should spend that money on strong athletic and social programs, Dr. Fox says. ``The after-school sports programs that were around 25 years ago aren't around anymore,'' he says.
For Hector Torres, who hopes to go to college and become a social worker, after-school programs are needed as well as stronger police efforts alone. He says the community must provide ``sports activities and other things ... to keep you away from the streets - and trouble.''
One in a series of occasional articles providing a close-up look at America.