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No end in sight
Boston’s murder rate has doubled in five years — and may not have peaked yet. Here’s why.

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The Worst Homicide Squad in the Country: David Bernstein's coverage of Boston's murder problem in the Boston Phoenix.

Two years ago, as 2003 was winding down, Boston’s political and law-enforcement leaders were crowing over their defeat of the homicide problem. After two years with troubling annual tallies in the 60s, the murder count had dropped back to 1996–2000 levels, when 35 to 40 had been the norm. Shootings became a non-issue, politically and in the media. When Boston’s police commissioner, Paul Evans, left for foggier pastures in England, the consensus was that the top concerns awaiting his replacement would be officer morale, security for the Democratic National Convention, and the recent uptick in robberies; a fourth issue, crowd control, was added after the February 1, 2004, post–Super Bowl debacle. In retrospect, though, the city’s victory over homicide was Boston’s version of Bush’s "Mission Accomplished."

As the Phoenix cautioned at the time, 2003 was a pivotal year in crime, as a new cycle of youth-related violence began its current surge. That surge has seen 38 teenagers killed in the last two years.

City and law-enforcement officials are now trying to find some new version of the early 1990s’ "Boston Miracle," when new law-enforcement and community-outreach strategies made the streets safe again. We’ll need one. Because all signs indicate that this wave of violence is still on the rise.

Amid a host of reasons why Boston’s bloodshed may continue, three stand out. Mayor Menino, Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole, and others know one of them — and they’ve known it for several years. The 2000 US Census counted 32,553 Boston residents age 10 to 14, up 22 percent from 1990. Count forward: they are now in their late teens. They were born in the middle of the crisis that preceded the "Boston Miracle" and have been disproportionately exposed to every risk factor identified in criminal-justice research. Add to that a homicide squad with a clearance rate of less than 30 percent, and a police department consistently losing the community’s trust (not helped by an administration that thinks fighting T-shirts will restore that trust), and you’ve got a recipe for destruction.


Here’s a brief recap of what was happening in inner-city Boston in the late 1980s: a crack-cocaine epidemic raged, bringing with it a surge of wrecked lives and gang violence. In response, the state’s incarceration rate doubled, primarily from the jailing of young men — which continued and even increased for years after the drug use and violence waned.

As a result, a disproportionate number of the children born in Boston in the mid-to-late ’80s spent time in single-parent households or in state custody. In the early and mid ’90s they attended failing Boston schools; when they reached middle and high school, national Republicans and their own governor Mitt Romney yanked away money for tutors, after-school programs, and summer jobs. Just as they approached the end of high school, the state slapped down the new MCAS requirement that, as predicted, drove up their dropout rate. When they eventually went looking for work, they discovered that the Boston area had shed nearly 4000 manufacturing jobs, 5500 retail jobs, 5500 government jobs, and 3000 nonprofessional service-sector jobs in 2002 alone, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

A Casey Foundation study last year listed the four major adolescent predictors of violent criminal activity as teen pregnancy, time in state custody, time in the juvenile-justice system, and dropping out of high school. Check, check, check, and check for a large number of these teens.

Find a trait predictive of violent criminal behavior, and this group has it. By now, many teens have been through Department of Youth Services detention at least once, and have seen someone shoot or be shot. They have developed a solid distrust of police. And they are teenagers — poor judges of character and prone to quick-tempered action.

This generation began to make its mark on crime stats two years ago.

Despite the drop in homicides, in 2003 the city saw a rise in overall violent crime, with particular jumps in gun crimes and juvenile arrests. Juvenile arrests (age 16 and under) rose 14 percent from the prior year — and were a startling 53 percent higher than in 1995. As the Phoenix wrote in its first issue of 2004, six teenage minors were murdered in 2003, more than in the previous four years combined. "Homicide as a response to a bad situation seems to be a theme that’s not losing steam," Suffolk County sheriff Andrea Cabral told the Phoenix at the time. "Weapons are a first response, and youth have a limited concept of consequences."

Several other things happened in 2003 that put inner-city kids behind the criminal eight ball. In addition to Evans, the Boston Police Department (BPD) lost retiring head of the homicide squad Paul Farrahar, and several others on that team. Romney took office, quickly slashing youth services in the name of budget cuts, including not only tutoring, but mental-health services, drug-abuse treatment, summer jobs, and worker training. The BPD’s police budget was also drastically cut.

Sure enough, it all exploded in 2004 and hasn’t slowed since, despite an endless series of crime-fighting initiatives. Boston’s homicide rate (murders per 100,000 population) zoomed from under six a year in 1999-2000 — the 33rd highest among the 40 most populous US cities — to 12 a year in 2004-2005, moving Boston up to 17th place.

Anyone who thinks a few months of action — any action — can undo our demographic destiny is kidding him- or herself. We’re lucky such a huge percentage of these teens are, despite the odds, not interested in getting into trouble. But the ones who are not have a lot of shooting left in them before they move out of the high-violence age bracket — for starters, retaliation for all the unsolved shootings left over from 2005.

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Issue Date: December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006
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