Like a Sunday School class for adults, some 15 men and women gathered recently in the dimly lit basement of St. Mark's Rectory in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester..
They had not come together for spiritual enlightenment. Rather, they met in an effort to set their city on the path to salvation from the scourge of urban crime.
What makes this crusade noteworthy is that it isn't conducted with bigger SWAT teams or more special agents. It is utilizing an unexpected weapon - cooperation. Police are sharing tips with social workers. Neighborhood groups are swapping information with prosecutors. Ministers are talking to probation officers. All are part of an unusual union that represents community policing taken to a new level - one that many experts say is a harbinger for the way cities will fight crime into the next century.
For now, Boston is the fountainhead of this new movement. Other cities are experimenting with the concept, but this East Coast city has pushed it the furthest.
United States Attorney General Janet Reno is so impressed that she is passing out brochures on the approach here. But perhaps most telling, the program is proving its worth on the streets - in lower crime statistics.
"Boston is further ahead than virtually any place in the US in terms of its collaborative effort," says George Kelling, one of the leading proponents of community policing and a professor at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.
In fact, the assemblage in the church basement here includes a police precinct captain, an assistant district attorney, someone from the mayor's office, and several community activists. At this meeting, players compare notes on the whereabouts of the worst offenders in a crime-ridden section of Dorchester, one of Boston's poorest neighborhoods.
This effort, now in its third year, is called the Dorchester Safe Neighborhood Initiative (SNI). It takes the increasingly popular concept of community policing to the next stage. Now, the police are not only building better relations with the community, but they are also a partner in dissolving the antagonism that once kept precincts, courts, probation officers, and social-service agencies at a distance from one another.
"Everybody's now coming in and putting the resources they have on the table," says Dorchester police Capt. Robert Dunford. "It's the first time we've really experimented with this type of coordination."
THE result of this newfound cooperation is that the community as a whole works together to stem crime, putting in place preventive measures and developing creative solutions. Police officers concerned about the crime potential of kids hanging around on the streets can call community agencies that will help the teens find jobs. Or if officers have evidence that an offender is a gang leader, they now speak with prosecutors to make sure he serves time for any small infraction, rather than allowing him to get off with a plea bargain.
"We've found that in partnership, we can strengthen our ability to deal with the problems that lead to crime," says William Bratton, former police commissioner of Boston and New York. "Police are back big time ... but we're learning that their actions are only part of a continuum."
In a recent monthly meeting, street social worker Emmett Folgert announced that a gang truce was perilously close to faltering. Rival gangs had been involved in a barroom fight in another area of the city during the day - an incident he feared could lead to an outbreak of gang violence. At the heart of the problem, he said, was truancy. Keeping the kids in class would reduce the likelihood of further problems, but older teens had been driving around South Boston High School, picking up freshmen to "hook" school.
Before the Safe Neighborhood Initiative was created, it would have taken a concerted effort or sheer coincidence for the police to become aware of a truancy problem that spanned several sectors of the city.
With the SNI in place, the Dorchester police had the information they needed to keep a lid on gang violence. They could simply pick up the phone and ask the South Boston police to stop cars that were swinging by for teens during school hours.
The Dorchester SNI has more than anecdotes to recommend it, though. Early crime statistics from the SNI area show that crime has dropped across the board (see table, right).
Boston as a whole has also seen a dramatic reduction in crime. The city had 152 homicides in 1990, compared with 57 so far this year, a 62 percent drop. The city also boasts one of the nation's most-impressive crime statistics of late: No juvenile here under the age of 17 has been shot to death for a year and a half.
Law-enforcement officials are quick to give credit to the Dorchester Safe Neighborhood Initiative and two other SNIs patterned after it, as well as other crime-prevention strategies that Boston has undertaken.
"In three years, we've come a real long way in Boston," says Ralph Martin, the district attorney for Suffolk County. "We've made better decisions about who should be prosecuted and what else can be done. The truth is that police and prosecution are mutually dependent on each other, but it's not always an easy match," he says.
Criminologists, though, say city officials must be wary of taking some of the SNI methods too far. Mr. Kelling, who published some of the initial community-policing research a decade ago and has written a new book on the subject, says his concern is that the police and the courts take special care not to violate individuals' rights by arresting homeless people indiscriminately or oversentencing first-time offenders.
"Cities have to do this right," Kelling says. "You can restore order and not do it in an abusive way."
Boston is a beacon on this horizon, he says, and can expect to gain even more attention. "Boston is one of the leading communities, because not only are the police on board, but the prosecutors and the courts are committed to it," he says.
TOM LEMBO is a veteran cop with five years on the Dorchester community-service beat under his belt. But what happened on a recent late afternoon startled even him.
As he pulled up to a stop sign, he saw a young man running toward the cruiser, waving his arms. "My sister, she wants to talk to you," the teen said breathlessly.
Officer Lembo was on his guard, expecting trouble. He checked his gun, backed up the car, and inquired what the matter was.
The sister, it turned out, had her brother flag down the patrol car not to plead for help, but to offer it. She was reporting a stolen car that had been abandoned in her driveway a few days before.
It was a simple incident, but it illustrates a larger shift that has taken place in Dorchester. The public and the police - once foes - are becoming friends and trusted partners in the fight against crime.
"The area has gotten 100 percent better," says Linda Strother-Lyons, a colleague of Lembo's on the community-policing team. "Before, people would throw stuff at us. They didn't care. Now, when they see you coming, they know it's not just because there's a problem. The public's changed, maybe because we have."
To the police, the SNI means forging a closer relationship with the courts and the community. It involves everything from effective response to so-called quality-of-life crimes, such as abandoned cars and prostitution, to establishment of strong neighborhood-watch groups. It means working with other city agencies so that run-down homes can be purchased and cleaned up.
"We're basically restoring order in the neighborhood," Lembo says.
DORCHESTER is a neighborhood with its share of bustle and faded charm. The two-story buildings and brick sidewalks in the area's shopping district give it a historic feel. But the frequent liquor stores and the many run-down, once-elegant, homes that populate the residential sections create a bleak scene.
Lembo grew up here in the '50s, when Dorchester was a "good place to raise a family." His intention, he says, is to return it to that state. And the best way to do that, he says, is to police the small crimes.
"Just as a broken window left unattended is a sign that nobody cares, so does disorderly behavior lead to more disorderly behavior and to crime," Criminologist Kelling says. "Once you start to restore order, you get to a tipping point where it's expected that people will behave."
But the improvement in Dorchester's streets never could have happened without the cooperation of the courts, Lembo says. "This involves a lot more than just taking an area and policing it differently."
Take the case of Angel Sanchez (not his real name). From the police vantage point, he was a bad-news teen who'd been in and out of jail for small-time crimes. He showed all the signs of being on his way to becoming a hardened adult criminal and a big problem for the police. About a year ago, he was paroled again. The police immediately began looking for ways to put him back behind bars.
He was arrested for trespassing, a charge the courts could have easily dismissed. Instead, through the networking of the SNI, he got six months behind bars - and petty crime in the area plummeted. "The guy running the show was gone. Everybody kind of went on their own, and problems disappeared," Lembo says.
In this case, the tale has a more permanent ending. The SNI district attorney spent some time checking the records closely, something other prosecutors would probably not have the staff to do. He found that Mr. Sanchez was in the US illegally. He's now in jail and scheduled to be deported upon release.
THE spark that set off Dorchester's SNI came from an unusual source - the Massachusetts attorney general's office. Attorney General Scott Harshbarger approached Boston's mayor, district attorney, and police chief, saying: " 'I'd love to commit some resources to the city in a meaningful way. I've got some extra lawyers, how can I help?' " recalls Mr. Martin, the Suffolk County district attorney. "Those first conversations really flourished into strategy sessions."
Eventually, the players decided to pool the resources of their respective agencies and to start small, concentrating in one of the city's highest crime areas.
"The SNI was established to try to deal with the problems in the neighborhood that are leading to crimes, not just to prosecute the crimes," says Assistant Attorney General Marcy Jackson, who has been working with the SNI since it began.
They set up advisory councils to get the community involved, and funneled extra money and resources into the Dorchester police precinct. They launched city programs to fight graffiti and find jobs for teens. In the district and superior courts, prosecutors were set aside to handle only cases from the SNI.
The police-court link is key to the crime crackdown. Designating specific prosecutors to follow SNI cases enables them to become familiar with offenders and their records and to notice crime patterns. A repeat offender is less likely to slip through the system now.
Because the SNI covers a small area (roughly a square mile), the attorneys have gotten to know people here, and they now press for stricter sentences for crimes the community wants to see punished - such as drug dealing, neighborhood theft, and prostitution. Community policing can prompt officers to make arrests in quality-of-life crimes, but if the courts aren't prosecuting them, the net effect has been lost, Lembo says.
"It's very important that the courts be mindful of what people in the community are concerned about," says Mr. Bratton, now a security consultant in New York. "The best courts are those in which judges are a part of the community, not apart from it."
As the Dorchester SNI enters its fourth year, some of its toughest challenges may lie ahead. Its $340,000 a year budget may be cut dramatically as other SNIs are created throughout the state and as federal dollars dry up. On the streets, a number of gang truces hang in shaky balance. Moreover, state and federal welfare-reform requirements could burden community organizations and take jobs away from teens.
But police, state officials, and community organizers say the project has come too far to fold. Even if the SNI goes through growing pains, criminologists say, Boston offers an example of the newest thinking in fighting crime.
"The task of the police is to create an environment in which [social] policies can make a difference. When you've turned schools into jails ... and delivery trucks can't even go through neighborhoods because the kids are going to steal from them, you couldn't make a difference if you tried with other programs," Kelling says.
"The school of thought had been that societal conditions caused crime," says Bratton. "Now we're thinking, 'Well, maybe we had it backward.' " Maybe, he says, crime causes poverty.