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National Perspective | Crime

Boston's Youth Violence Program Becomes Model for Nation

Collaborative effort between community and police credited with reducing homicides.

August 24, 1998|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Delegates from the police, the clergy, the probation department and the district attorney's office also began talking directly to gang members, their families, their friends and their neighbors. "The key turned out to be sitting down and saying 'Look, the violence stops--and if it doesn't stop, we're going to enforce every law we've got,' " Police Commissioner Paul Evans said.

At first the violence didn't stop. True to their word, officials swept in, calling on the National Guard to level a wooded area that had become gang territory. Twenty-three Intervale Posse members were sent to jail, a substantial dent in the gang's roster. Police also heeded the recommendations of church leaders who considered some kids too violent to be on the street.

"They're very realistic," French said of those in the religious community. "They know you can't save every kid. They'd rather counsel him in prison than do a funeral for one of his victims."

In September 1996, soon after the Intervale sweep, "the streets changed," Kennedy said. For those younger than 25, he said, gun deaths since then have been running at 75% below their previous average. He stressed, however, that social scientists balk at assigning a single cause to the decline.

The dearth of crime soon became a happy habit, Sgt. Det. Margot Hill said. "People got used to the idea that they could send their kids out at night," she said. When the 2 1/2-year stretch without a youth lost to gunfire was broken in December, "people went ballistic," Hill said, adding, "We didn't realize how personally and profoundly they took it."

Out on the streets, Officers Mark Freirie and Jimmy Rattigan speak earnestly about the collaborative nature of their work.

Both are members of Operation Night Light, plainclothes officers who patrol the streets at night. His early police training taught them to target and arrest "one or two individuals," said Freirie, 36. "Now we'll go in, watch them, identify them--and we'll move in on a sweep, taking 25 guys at a time."

Housing management companies are especially helpful, Rattigan said, vacating apartments that gaze out on troubled areas so police can have a neighborhood foothold. He also praised probation officers who pay surprise visits to homes.

Freirie and Rattigan expressed enthusiasm for the newest component of the youth antiviolence project, a 2-to-6 p.m. after-school program developed by Mayor Tom Menino's office that debuts next month.

"It used to be that you didn't have time to get a sandwich," Freirie said. "You went from shooting to stabbing to stickup, then back again."

By contrast, on a recent night last week, the pair cruised by a former gang hideaway and saw a girls' volleyball game in progress. The worst event of the evening was a non-injury traffic accident.

Still, the two back-to-back drive-by killings earlier this month offered "a reminder," Rattigan said, "that we got our work cut out for us."

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