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Looking back to move forward

6/23/2009, 10:50 a.m.
“Well, when shootings increase, homicides are not far behind.”

Looking back to move forward

Residents of Boston’s high-crime areas have an understandable concern about policies that will make life safer in their neighborhoods. However, one issue should be abundantly clear: The primary job of the police is not to prevent crime. It is to apprehend those who are believed to be criminal perpetrators.

Under the American system of justice, the police have limited authority to make a pre-emptive strike to prevent a crime from being committed. They cannot enter a residence without a warrant issued by a judge, and they cannot stop and frisk an individual without complying with the requirements of proper cause. The police usually go into action after a crime has occurred.

An effective crime prevention strategy must be based upon a policy of the mayor. There is an irrefutable way to determine whether the policy works. It is only necessary to note whether the statistics on crime and violence have gone up or down. One of the most important tasks of the police is to maintain such convivial community relations that citizens will come forward with information when crimes occur.

African American citizens and ministers have become concerned about a 37.5 percent spike in shootings through the first five months of 2009 over the same period last year. The number of shootings rose from 80 to 110. The Boston crime rate has been a problem for the last 20 years.

Former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn became concerned when homicides climbed in 1990, up to 116, according to data from a 20-year study of homicides in Boston prepared by the staff of City Councilor Chuck Turner. Of that year’s victims, 69 were 25 years old or younger, and a disproportionate number were African American.

Flynn inherited intense racial hostility in Boston when he became mayor in 1984. Between 1980 and 1983, the police had gunned down several blacks — Levi Hart, Braxton Mitchell, Alex Valentin, Mario Velez and Elijah Pate. Police Commissioner Joseph M. Jordan always backed his officers in the shootings, had a reputation for being hostile to blacks and was suspected of being involved in the city’s growing drug traffic.

Flynn acted forcefully. He paid the successfully litigated wrongful death claims against the city, replaced Jordan as police commissioner with Francis “Mickey” Roache, and instructed Roache to integrate the force. Roache appointed Richard Cox, Pervis Ryan, James Claiborne and Joseph Carter to the command staff and named William Celester deputy superintendent and Area B commander.

The Boston Police Department, the U.S. Attorney’s Office under Wayne Budd, and the Boston Federal Drug Task Force cooperated to arrest Darryl “God” Whiting, the major drug dealer operating in the Orchard Park area. In 1990, Robert Lewis Jr., who is now vice president for operations at the Boston Foundation, was a city employee. He organized for Flynn a program of street workers to engage youth and prevent them from taking over the drug distribution apparatus abandoned when Whiting and his crew were jailed. Members of the Nation of Islam also worked closely with the police commissioner to prevent youth violence.