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BPD gun search plan under fire at City Council hearing

Talia Whyte | 7/28/2009, 11:50 a.m.

Community leaders, local politicians and city residents came together Monday for a City Council hearing on the potential benefits and dangers of the Boston Police Department’s controversial new Safe Homes initiative to residents of Roxbury and Dorchester.

As has been the case since the BPD announced the initiative last month, reactions to the program’s proposed warrantless weapons searches were heavily mixed and highly emotional.

Safe Homes is a consent-to-search program in which police plan to ask parents in the Egleston Square, Franklin Hill/Franklin Field, Bowdoin-Geneva and Grove Hall neighborhoods to allow detectives to come into their homes without a warrant to search for weapons in their children’s bedrooms. The BPD said they hope the initiative, based on a model used in St. Louis in the mid-to-late 1990s, will take scores of illegal firearms off the streets, helping to curb violence in those largely minority communities that have seen a spike in violent crime over the past two years.

BPD officials say police would rely on tips from neighbors as to where weapons may be found, but have repeatedly emphasized that parents do not have to consent to searches at all, and that even if they do allow detectives into their homes, they have the right to tell the police what areas of the home are acceptable to search.

If a weapon is found, police officials have said that officers will not arrest youths for illegal possession of the firearm in the home. But if police determine — either by testing or through other information — that the weapon was used in a crime, appropriate charges may be filed.

Despite the assurances of law enforcement officials, a group of academics, community activists and civil rights advocates have bristled at the idea of police asking citizens to waive their legal protections, with one Boston University criminology professor calling the Safe Homes effort “an end-run around the Constitution.”

At Monday’s hearing, City Councilor Chuck Turner — who is adamantly opposed to the initiative — raised concerns that Boston police are not fully disclosing their intentions to the public, specifically about paying officers overtime for their work on the program, and are not properly advertising Safe Homes to the community. Turner further charged that the way the BPD has handled this program so far has shown an underlying coercion and disrespect toward the communities it is intended to aid.

City Councilor Sam Yoon said the BPD is not making enough of an effort to gain the trust of the community. He suggested that police not search for weapons on their first visit to a home, but rather use it as an opportunity to gain the trust of the family by educating them about the process.

“Community policing has to be a personal [effort]; otherwise, it’s a farce,” Yoon said. “If we don’t get this right as a city, we are simply not going to solve this problem.”

Many community residents were present at the hearing to voice their concerns about trusting the police, including community activist Jamal Crawford of Roxbury, who said he has never had a positive experience with the police. He said it would take a long time for the community to want to work with the police.

Concerned by the threat on civil liberties, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLU) has opposed the measure from the start, and launched an outreach program to educate parents about the constitutional rights they are being asked to surrender by the police. Echoing Yoon’s comments, ACLU staff attorney Sarah Wunsch said that trust is the overarching problem facing the program.

“How voluntary is this program when three police officers and a clergy member come to your door?” she said. “It’s intimidating.”

While the police say they will not charge youth with unlawful gun possession unless the weapon is linked to a crime, according to the ACLU, they may still charge other members of the household or bring charges based on other crimes that come up from evidence seized during a search. The ACLU said they are also concerned about the confidentiality of family members once a weapon is determined to have been used in a crime and the potential repercussions of that information being made public, such as losing one’s house once a landlord finds out about the weapon, or a student being expelled from school.

Representing the BPD at Monday’s hearing, Sgt. Detective Michael Talbot and Deputy Superintendent Gary French said that the police officers working this beat are multiracial, live in Boston and are concerned about the needs of the community. When detectives show up at a home, they will be dressed in plainclothes and willing to initiate a dialogue with the family, and if the family says they don’t want their home searched, the police will leave immediately, Talbot and French said.

To the question of the Safe Homes strategy being intimidating, Talbot said that this is the only way to get the family to respond to the authorities.

“Until you show up at the door, parents won’t pay attention to what’s going on with their children,” Talbot said.

Rachel Fazzino, program coordinator for the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, said that the Safe Homes initiative is really a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and recommended that police train parents how to search for guns in their own homes.

“We need to empower the parents to regain control in their home,” she said. “Let’s look at the resources in our community first.”

Not everyone at the hearing was against the program. Rev. Wayne Daley of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, who said he went out with the police to interact with the community this summer, is supportive of the program.

City Councilor Rob Consalvo and state Rep. Linda Dorcena Forry, on the other hand, said they were still on the fence and were still researching its viability. In the meantime, they requested that the public still keep an open mind about Safe Homes.

“I know people are concerned about this program, but we shouldn’t dismiss it yet,” Consalvo said. “There are flaws, but we shouldn’t leave any stone unturned.”