Boston battles surge in gun violence

As the murder rate hits a 10-year high, community leaders combat illegal guns and gang culture.

City leaders across the country have been reassured by declining rates of violent crime during the past five years. But in Boston, they are shaken by daylight gun battles and a disturbing trend of youth-on-youth killings.

Shootings are up 33 percent from a year ago. And in the 18-to-21 age bracket, firearm-related arrests are up 38 percent. The murder toll has set a 10-year-high.

At 67, the number of homicides is still low compared with other major American cities, but half of the victims were 25 or younger. The spike in gun violence - particularly among youths - is a setback for a city that led the way in combating youth violence last decade.

Community leaders say increasing numbers of teens without job opportunities, including a growing number of high school dropouts, are turning to illegal firearms, which activists say are too easily accessible. Fewer police officers on the streets have also caused alarm. And, many say, the coalitions of community activists, clergy, police, and academics that united in the 1990s to cut back on youth homicide - giving rise to the so-called "Boston Miracle" - have fragmented, leaving them ineffective today.

"It took ten years for the Boston Miracle to erode," says Pastor Bruce Wall of Global Ministries Christian Church in the Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, who has worked for decades to stop youth violence.

But the city's past experience, he and many others say, means it can regroup and fight this new spate of violence too. "We are not novices here," Reverend Wall says. "We've all matured doing this work."

City officials are scrambling to stop the violence that has erupted in Boston's criminal hot spots. Mayor Thomas Menino has pledged to reevaluate how the city fights crime. His plan includes better integration of city agencies and advocates, more attention to the illegal flow of guns in the city - including an anonymous tipster line to report them - and a boost in the number of police officers in high-crime areas. He even discouraged some local businesses from selling the popular "Stop Snitchin" T-Shirts.

Residents have been shaken by brazen incidents in the past couple months. Last month, a man was shot to death in Boston's South End in broad daylight. Two weeks ago, shots rang out as a group of fifth-graders were beginning recess.

Boston faced a direr situation 15 years ago. In 1990, the city's homicide rate peaked at 152. In response, the city launched "Operation Ceasefire," which forged partnerships between researchers and community activists to aggressively address the youth homicide rate. It worked. The number of murders dropped to 31 in 1999.

As the model was repeated in cities across the nation, however, leaders in Boston say divisions and budget cuts led to its deterioration. Rev. Wall blames fragmentation on competition among coalitions for money that poured into the city. And with success came complacency. "They stopped doing it because of the erroneous belief that crime wasn't a problem anymore," says James Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University here.

Today gun violence is often due to small gangs of high-rate offenders, driven by turf, respect, and personal vendettas, says David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a leader in Operation Ceasefire when it launched in Boston. "This kind of thing feeds on itself," he says. Dr. Fox says the murder rate today is not as alarming as it was 15 years ago. "But it is an early warning of worse things that may come," he says. "It's time to wake up."

Kathy Kihanya, who directs the GED Plus program in Roxbury, says there is a sense of hopelessness among many of today's youths, who sometimes turn to gangs and guns when they have no work opportunities. That has bolstered the market for guns in the area: even those uninvolved in crime have armed themselves for self-protection. "It is a multiplying effect," she says. "Every time someone has a gun, someone else has to have one."

Some residents have begun taking action on their own, especially, they say, with the police department down 200 officers. Suspects have been arrested or identified in only 20 of 67 homicides this year.

Barry Mullen, a community activist, has helped organize 15 crime watch associations in the past six months in Dorchester.

The crime watch associations seek visibility with fliers, by actively calling the police to report suspicious activity, and by confronting young loiterers in the community. Most important, he says, they get to know one another and become a united front. "The neighborhoods that are organized are going to push [crime] out," he says.

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