From the beginning of 2016 to the end of 2017, Boston has experienced an almost 10% increase in shooting victims, both fatal and non-fatal, according to the Boston Police Department.
Some of Boston’s predominantly low-income, minority neighborhoods, such as Roxbury and Dorchester, have seen a rise in homicides. However, the number of 2016-2017 homicides has remained about 16% below Boston’s 10-year average. Viewing these statistics, one has to wonder why Boston’s gun violence shows inconsistency and fluctuation in violence rates. This variability can be credited to Boston’s inadequate communal efforts to intervene and prevent youth violence, and the prominent, but inequitable Massachusetts firearm laws. From the 1980s and into the 90s, Boston experienced an epidemic of youth homicides, rooted from increased gang violence and usage of crack cocaine. From 1991 to 1995, Boston averaged almost 45 youth homicides per year.
Most of the violence that occurred took place in Boston’s low-income, minority neighborhoods, where most gang turf was located. As such, very little was done by the Boston Police Department to alleviate this issue of physical and structural violence. In addition to the lack of action on the part of the BPD, Boston was also ill-equipped to deal with this rise in youth violence and homicide.
The common response to cases of all violence, especially when located in minority neighborhoods, was aggression and brash policing tactics, which are quite similar to today’s policing tactics that have been brought to light by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Soon after much outcry arose from the most violence-ridden neighborhoods, Boston launched the Anti-Gang Violence Unit, which acted to disrupt gang conflicts, instead of following the procedural policy of arresting all crime-participating offenders. This unit soon evolved into the Youth Violence Strike Force, which broadened its purpose to address and prevent Boston’s growing youth violence. Despite these efforts, minority residents were still wary of the police, and there was little improvement in decreasing the number of youth homicides. In contrast to the tactics enforced by the Youth Violence Strike Force and other police units, black clergy activists formed the Ten Point Coalition. The ministers of this coalition walked the streets of the communities they served in the effort to impress the message of anti-violence on all youth, whether gang-involved or not.
From frequently crossing paths, and trying to achieve the same goals within Boston’s neighborhoods, the members of the Ten Point Coalition and the Youth Violence Strike Force formed an alliance to prevent violence. From this partnership, the BPD was held accountable by the black clergymen who stood for fair treatment of the people they ministered to. This helped build a basic, but delicate trust that was necessary for the violence prevention programs to benefit Boston’s communities, and have an effect. Soon after the relationship between the Ten Point Coalition and the BPD was established, Operation Ceasefire was instituted in 1996. The plan of Operation Ceasefire was simple: hold the groups most responsible for driving violence accountable through direct deterrence. When identifying the “responsible groups”, the factors and characteristics looked for were young, minority men who were most likely to shoot or be shot.
Through face-to-face confrontations that were facilitated by Ten Point Coalition members, the BPD was able to get a clear message across to the groups they addressed, which stated that if violence continued to occur, regardless of crime, or position as the victim or the perpetrator, expect an immediate response of police action. The promise of instant and unwavering measures directed to entire groups, rather than just perpetrators, served to be an influential deterrent. In addition to this message, the BPD also offered a glimmer of hope to gang members. If the affiliated members chose to turn their lives around, they were assured that assistance and support would be extended to them. These measures of community aid was a positive incentive that would help facilitate nonviolent behaviors, and promote peaceful livelihoods through access to social services and job opportunities. Two years after the adaptation of Operation Ceasefire, the average monthly number of youth homicides in Boston significantly dropped by 63%. This pattern continued to be sustained until Operation Ceasefire was terminated in 2000. After the discontinuation of Operation Ceasefire, youth violence by firearms began to rise, slowly reversing any efforts made during the operation.
Mirroring Boston’s past violence history, the demographics of the resurrecting violence was again concentrated among youth in low-income, minority neighborhoods. This reflection suggests an implication of the failure of Operation Ceasefire. Due to a lack of commitment, and growing friction between the police and the Ten Point Coalition, there was a failed effort to continue applying the strategies learned from the operation. This resulted in the positive effects of Operation Ceasefire to eventually be rendered futile. Boston once again needed to execute a stronger, long-term foundation of policy and intervention to follow through. Various attempts were made to re-establish elements of Operation Ceasefire in the form of a series of short-term campaigns to purge the streets of violence. However, these strategies led to less than impressive results, as police forces resorted to their previous severe, and sometimes discriminatory enforcement strategies.
This instigated a continuous, worsening conflict between the BPD and community members, which had been improved upon beforehand during Operation Ceasefire. Furthermore, there was conflict within the police department itself, with a division between the patrol and investigative forces at the time. All of these effects combined caused Boston’s gun violence issue to further escalate, despite the previous successful efforts that were made. Although more endeavors were made to improve the situation of violence within Boston’s neighborhoods, the attempted programs were not well-focused or effectuated due to the debilitated relationship between the BPD and the community. Homicides and shootings increased as the local perception of law enforcers grew progressively cynical and dismissive. In a last resort undertaking, a renewed effort to reconstitute Operation Ceasefire was implemented from 2007 to 2010. Through this second attempt of Operation Ceasefire, 19 Boston gangs were subjected to the same deterrence strategies. From this restoration of the operation, shootings among the 19 targeted gangs fell three times as fast as shootings of the 82 other gangs who were not subjected to Operation Ceasefire.
These results further validated the success of Operation Ceasefire. However, the success was once again short-lived after the discontinuation of the program, led to a predictable regeneration in firearm homicides. This further emphasized the necessity for a permanent initiative to halt Boston’s gun violence. Unfortunately, little progress has been made on the part of Boston’s government.Due to the lack of strength in Boston’s government, both interdepartmentally and fiscally, the hope of any improvement with Boston’s gun violence problem relies primarily on its nonprofit community organizations. Since these nonprofits are locally rooted, these organizations have the dedication to commit themselves to serve the neighborhoods of Boston that are most affected by violence. A large number of these nonprofits serving the communities address social issues from which violence potentially stems from.
One such organization is College Bound Dorchester, which focuses their efforts on the “Core Influences”, who are defined as the youth who are leaders among their peers and drive the violence that occurs on the streets of Dorchester, Boston. The vision of College Bound Dorchester is to use education as a force of community change, providing academic and social-emotional support to help students overcome the barriers on the path to and through college. By providing additional support, students will hopefully be able to transform their individual lives, which in turn can shift the violent culture of Dorchester as well.Despite the commitment of Boston’s nonprofits, they are limited with their breadth of impact, as many of the organizations are small-scale. The government of the city of Boston needs to establish stronger, more pronounced actions that will persistently deter gun violence. As a state, Massachusetts has enforced various strong policies that have been accredited to the overall decrease in the number of homicides.
In 2014, the state legislature passed a gun bill that gave police chiefs the discretion to deny a permit for a firearm if they deemed an applicant unfit for approval of a firearm. This bill addressed many of the risk factors that included standardized licensing processes, domestic violence, and gun sale loopholes. However, although the state of Massachusetts has secure firearm laws, these laws have had a less pronounced impact on singular urban areas, especially Boston, which account for a disproportionate amount of state shootings. This ineffectiveness could be attributed to the fact that Boston’s budget doesn’t reflect the needs necessary to make any prominent changes within its most violence-ridden neighborhoods, which account for a majority of Massachusetts’s minority population. In 2017, the city of Boston granted 3% of its expenditures to the Public Health Commission, which is one of the leading sectors in Boston for violence prevention. This limited funding has restricted the Public Health Commission’s Violence Intervention & Prevention Initiative, which works to improve the conditions of the surrounding gun violence.
The initiative works in five neighborhoods that were selected due to their high rates of gun violence, but high potential to improve. Mobilization of community-based organizations and residents are the key drivers of the initiative, as well as improved coordination with Boston’s agencies. This approach has enabled the initiative to expand resources to these neighborhoods, offering the chance for residents to shift the neighborhood culture from one of violence and poverty to one of opportunity and hope. However, with such a small portion of the budget, services are curbed beyond what they should be if any long-term improvement within the communities is to be established. The services function at a low, minimal level, inadequately meeting the needs of the select neighborhoods. This restriction reinforces the cycle of structural violence within Boston’s neighborhoods because of the failure to provide these heavily low-income, minority households with culturally and linguistically appropriate resources. As such, Boston needs to take matters into its own hands and devise ways other than through public health initiatives to address Boston’s violence problem. To begin with, the law enforcement mechanisms of Boston need to be adjusted to ease tension between community members and the police.
Authorities should be trained in law enforcement tactics that are indiscriminate and unbiased. Law-enforcement officials need to be held accountable for their actions and should prioritize prosecution of violent crimes, instead of broader strategies, such as stop and searches, which are alienating for many community members. Their training should include learning procedurally just tactics, which could possibly extend to incorporate violence intervention approaches if a situation is deemed safe enough for an officer to become involved. With the knowledge that police officials go through unbiased training that increases their awareness of diversity, Bostonian residents could grow less wary of the authority presence in their neighborhoods. This would allow for the trust between the police and the community to build. Having a strong relationship between law enforcement and the community can increase the likelihood of residents being more willing to obey the laws, and assist in gun violence prevention efforts.
Any form of distrust makes residents less willing to share information and cooperate, impeding the ability of both groups to collaborate towards a more peaceful community. In addition to altering police tactics and training, the Boston Housing Authority should remodel Boston’s neighborhoods to be less economically segregated. Through neighborhood segregation, the risk of violence occurring in isolated, low-income areas increases significantly. Due to the greater factors of poverty and racial segregation that puts isolated neighborhoods a higher disadvantage, they are also more susceptible to a disease, such as violence.
The neighborhoods have little support to strengthen its “immunity”, increasing the risk of individuals to be affected by violence. Therefore, to deter worsening entrenchment of violence, neighborhoods should be economically integrated. This would allow low-income residents to benefit from the efforts that higher-income households put into making their neighborhood safer. However, this integration treads a fine line between desegregating isolated neighborhoods and gentrification. To prevent this integration from becoming gentrification, affordable housing should be planned and designed without causing displacement. Community members who already live in the neighborhoods should be immediately included in the plans for urban renewal, giving them an equitable voice at the table. In addition, more anchoring institutions should be placed in these neighborhoods instead of bringing in big businesses. Anchoring institutions are rooted in the local community through committed invested capital, and relationships with customers and employees.
This enables more investment to be put into the local economy, which would greatly contribute to building up the community’s wealth. Finally, the most seemingly easy way to begin setting a foundation for change against violence in Boston is by collaborating with the media. In the United States, discussions and attention surrounding gun violence are primarily driven by events involving white, mentally-unstable mass shooters.
However, these events don’t even account for a significant number of gun deaths. Within the past year, one-third of all U.S. gun deaths are homicides, of which two-thirds are black/African-American men. This could be perceived to be structural racism, because less attention is given to African-American lives, compared to white lives. The concentration of Boston’s gun violence among low-income, minority young men sets a need for a change in the gun violence narrative.
The needs of communities afflicted with violence must be met with services that improve job opportunity, educational support and address neighborhood segregation. Awareness of how gun violence disproportionately affects segregated neighborhoods must be brought up more frequently in gun violence discussions. Collaboration with the media and the city of Boston’s could prove to be a crucial step to changing the gun violence narrative, and increasing visibility and cognizance of who is heavily affected.From the beginning of Operation Ceasefire, Boston had the opportunity to lead advancements that deterred gun violence. However, due to difficulties created from the collaborative effort of the Operation, it was abandoned.
This rendered the strategy to be a short-term solution when its potential would have been much greater had it been implemented over a longer period of time. Later attempts to mirror the success of Operation Ceasefire were short-lived because of low commitment and a lack of funding. As such, Boston’s ability to implement a focused, but interdisciplinary violence prevention strategy was limited. A large portion of the efforts made to impede local violence in Boston strongly depended on non-governmental forces to assist the most at-risk neighborhoods.
However, the city of Boston needs to claim more responsibility for its citizens who are most affected by the gun violence. Although its Public Health Commission, which implements many of the city’s violence prevention programs, gets very little funding, other city departments can allocate their much larger funds to diffuse the issue through collaboration. These collaborative efforts should include working with the Boston Police Department to amend police training to be just and unbiased, along with a collaboration with the Housing Department to desegregate Boston’s neighborhoods. Finally, the gun violence narrative needs to be changed to bring more attention to the communities within Boston who are heavily affected, rather than focusing on black swan mass shootings. Gun violence is a common occurrence, whether in the form of non-fatal assault or homicide. This issue has been conceded and acknowledged by the city of Boston, yet little is done by the government to address it.
Massachusetts firearm laws need to acknowledge the disproportionate harm that gun violence causes to low-income, minority populations, and include more preventative measures that direct appropriate resources to these households. In doing so, Boston, as well as other areas heavily affected by gun violence in Massachusetts will hopefully become more peaceful.