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Police Safe Homes plan leads to heated debates

Kyle de Beausset and Howard Manly | 2/26/2009, 8:52 a.m.

State Sen. Dianne Wilkerson had heard enough.

For the last hour or so, she had listened patiently while speakers talked about the ins and outs — mostly outs — of the recently launched Safe Homes Initiative.

The Boston Police Department (BPD) measure is an attempt to rid city streets of illegal guns, thus reducing the number of gun-related crimes. But critics of the program argue that Safe Homes is unconstitutional, largely because police officers are allowed to search homes without a warrant.

Wilkerson had no real beef with the police. After all, she explained, “They are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing.”

Her problem was with the community, of which she is a proud and vocal member. She described the initiative as akin to trying to fix a leaky sink by putting a bucket underneath to catch the water.

“You’ve got to go to the source,” she said. “For adults … this [initiative] is a total abdication of our responsibility. What we’re saying is that, ‘We couldn’t figure it out, you have them.’ Shame on us!”

Underneath the legal issues and widespread mistrust of Boston police personnel lies a deep sense of shame.

Shame over the number of single-parent mothers.

Shame over the too-high number of high school dropouts, the too-low number of college graduates and the seemingly endless revolving door between the streets and prisons.

Shame over the senseless murders of young black men by other young black men.

And shame that here in Boston, it had all spiraled downward to the point where suspending the U.S. Constitution — specifically the Fourth Amendment, which protects Americans from illegal searches and seizures — seemed like a small price to pay to stop the inner-city bleeding.

“No mother, no father says, ‘I want to raise a killer’ — no one,” Wilkerson said. But, she repeated, “This is a total abdication of our responsibility. As adults, it is our responsibility to be responsible for these children.”

Wilkerson made those remarks at a town hall meeting held last Thursday evening at the Dorchester offices of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officials (MAMLEO) organized by Jamarhl Crawford, a member of the New Black Panther Party and editor of the Web site www.blackstonian.com.

Moderated by Bay State Banner Executive Editor Howard Manly, the meeting attracted several highly regarded panelists, including Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts; MAMLEO President Angela Williams-Mitchell; civil rights attorney James Dilday; Kazi Toure, co-chair of the National Jericho Movement-Jericho Boston; Lisa Thurau-Gray, managing director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School; and Tami Wilson of the Redirecting the Schools to Prison Pipeline Project of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School.

By most accounts, the measure is well-intentioned. But for many in the community, it’s the details that are troublesome.

Greater Love Tabernacle Pastor William Dickerson said as much in his opening prayer, noting that he has presided over the funerals of too many children to surrender his fight to end street violence.

“Unfortunately, we’re very reactionary as a community,” Dickerson said. “But I believe there are a lot of people here who are proactive … I believe that everyone in here wants to see a time when we can say there are no illicit guns within the ’hood.”

That is true.

But Anthony J. Raye, 20, said he didn’t think the initiative was in the right and told a different side of growing up in Boston.

“You’ve got to ask yourself the question: Why are youth carrying firearms?” he asked. “Why do they have them? Not every youth with a firearm has criminal intent.”

Raye offered one explanation.

“You need to feel protected,” he said. “And you don’t feel protected [by] the police if you don’t trust them. And you can’t trust them when you’re getting harassed by them every day.

“When I went to Dorchester High, there was shootings out in front of school at least once a week,” he continued. “How are you going to want to go to school if you don’t feel safe? Growing up, I’ve lost so many of my peers. I just lost my best friend on July 4th. So do I feel safe? No.”

Former Police Superintendent Bobbie Johnson was in the audience at the meeting, as were several Boston police officers including Deputy Superintendent Gary French, who oversees the Safe Homes program.

“When I hear the panelists talking about the constitutional rights, about the kids … at the same time, I think about the deaths of those kids,” Johnson said. “ I think about Liquarry Jefferson, who was playing with a gun right up the street here. I think about his family.

“Yes, we do have to think about the civil rights of our kids, but sometimes I think that as a community, we have to go one step further,” Johnson added. “You may not believe in the institution of the Boston Police Department. I wouldn’t tell you that I believe in everybody there, either. But I believe in Gary French.”

City Councilor Charles Yancey got right to the point.
“We should not support this program of having police coming unannounced, uninvited, to investigate what’s going on in your daughters’ or your sons’ bedrooms,” Yancey said. “If that parent initiates the call to the police, then that’s entirely appropriate. But I don’t want the police randomly knocking on doors in this community any more than any member of the Boston Police Department would support having the FBI, or the State Police, or the Boston Police knocking on other police officers’ doors … to see what’s happening in their sons’ bedrooms.”

Of particular concern was whether parents could reasonably feel unintimidated when plainclothes police officers knock on their door without a warrant and based on “intelligence.”

City Councilor Chuck Turner offered police officials a little constructive criticism.

“The intelligent way, given the objectives that the police say they have, would be to create the opportunity for parents who realize that they have a problem to sit down with the police and think about the alternatives and develop a plan about how to move forward,” Turner said. “That would be respect.”

Dilday, the former president of the Massachusetts Black Lawyers Association, cautioned any parent to be wary of surrendering their legal rights by allowing police to search their homes.

“You as the parents and the adults cannot think that when you allow an officer into your child’s room, to search that room, that it’s all going to be fine,” Dilday said. “Suppose the policeman comes in and he finds a gun in your child’s room, and that gun, 10 months ago, was used in a shooting and the ballistics show that. Don’t you dare believe he won’t catch some hell for that.”

Dilday went further.

“What’s going to happen when they come into your child’s room and they find a bag full of cocaine or a bag full of [marijuana] there?” he asked. “Will the police overlook it? Can they arrest them for it? Of course they can. Will they tell you that they won’t? Of course they’re going to tell you that. All I’m telling you, ladies and gentleman, is don’t give up your rights.”

Isaura Mendes knows all too well the painful results of gun violence. She has lost two sons, both murdered. For those in attendance, she had simple words of advice.
“If you have little children,” she said, “search their bags before they leave for school. When they come back, search their bag. If your children have their own room, don’t let them lock their door.”

Mendes saved her strongest words for would-be killers.

“Please don’t take life,” Mendes said. “Because you know what? When you take life, don’t tell me that when you go to bed in the night, you’re not going to think of the person that you took life from. Don’t tell me that. You ruin your life, you ruin thousands of people’s lives, people just like me.”