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YES WE CAN Reduce Urban Violence. Part I

Posted by Scott Harshbarger  September 28, 2010 11:14 AM

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The headlines of the front page of the BOSTON GLOBE – Saturday, September 25, 2010: "Spike in violence has city on edge – calls for more patrols, tougher firearm penalties…Police say homicides, shootings and burglaries are on the rise again, spurred by drugs and gang feuds and abetted by cuts to crime-fighting budgets…Peace shattered, fear revisits a Boston neighborhood".

Urban violence (and the perception and coverage of that violence) are, again, being viewed by the public, the media, and by far too many of our leaders as sad but inevitable realities of life in certain urban neighborhoods. This is unfortunate because it influences hugely how we deal with all urban public policy issues, but, more important, it is also simply not true. We do know how to reduce urban crime and violence dramatically, and we have done it before!

The Safe Neighborhood Initiative (the SNI) was (in the mid-1990s), and is today, a sure-fire recipe for reducing crime in our cities, ensuring safe homes and neighborhoods, and revitalizing our urban communities, this is not about money alone! The multi-faceted ingredients contained within the SNI formula exist today in every community. The challenge, I believe, is solely about our will, our values and our priorities – and about our leaders and the community acting together with a sense of urgency. Therefore, I will outline (in this and one or two commentaries to follow) an Action Plan setting forth the framework and elements that are crucial and central for the kind of comprehensive and coordinated solution that can truly remedy this particular gap between our "Two Americas".

First, for background and context, note The Media Coverage Disparity

Between the beginning of May and June 6 of this year, three children under the age of fourteen were shot and killed in Boston’s Roxbury and Dorchester neighborhoods. Standing out among these atrocities was fourteen year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis, who, while playing in the street, was pulled off his scooter, held down, and shot to death. In addition, at least two ten-year olds suffered non-fatal shootings during the same time – all were collateral damage of urban gang violence. These incidents of random violence generated some news articles and the obligatory expressions of outrage by news outlets and politicians, but none received any real ongoing media coverage.

Now compare these incidents to January 19, 2007 at Lincoln-Sudbury High School. Special-needs student John Odgren stabbed a student to death just before classes were to begin for the day. This single murder – no more horrific than any counterpart in the urban neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, or Jamaica Plain – received (and continues to receive) seemingly endless media coverage – coverage matched only by the saturation of the "Craigslist" murderer arrest and suicide. Amid the expressions of disbelief and shock, two weeks of testimony, and three days of jury deliberation, an outcry arose of how could this have happened? More to the point, and less openly stated, the outcry was one of how could this have happened here? In Lincoln? An affluent, predominantly white, well-to-do suburb of a major U.S. city? These things simply do not happen here. We must be able to prevent this ever happening again.

Of course, these unspoken sentiments exist because, to a large degree, they are based in truth. Unfortunately, violence is most prevalent in urban areas. More particularly, violence is most rampant in poor urban areas that most journalists and academics do not frequent. Is this the reason for the disparity of articles or op-eds between the Dorchester and Lincoln-Sudbury murders? Is it because the media itself is more puzzled, if not horrified, by the Lincoln-Sudbury killing than those in Dorchester? Or is it because the media knows that we, as their target audiences, in fact pay far more attention to one rather than the other? Why does yet another gang-related killing (or the testimony at Boston city council hearings of mothers of urban homicide victims) not spark cries for prevention programs, for how we might deal with urban violence as an educational, teaching, or community matter?

It is hard to believe that the disparity in media coverage is not directly related to the fact that one tragedy occurred in an affluent suburban community where we all live (or feel we live), and the others in urban communities, to minority youth in low-performing schools, in neighborhoods that are foreign to many of us. It is a sad truth that we must face, that many people see the crime and problems in urban communities as being sad but inevitable, and the ones in suburban communities – or like the alleged Craigslist murderer – to be shocking – and believe that they not only can but must be prevented!

Second, in dealing with crime and violence (as with so many other core areas of our lives), there are Two Americas

In both his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, John Edwards spoke of “Two Americas.” Those who have, and those who have not. Those who know that their children will live comfortable, happy lives, and those who live paycheck to paycheck, with little or no health care, poor educational opportunities, and in an economic wasteland. And more alarmingly, those whose children can play in their neighborhoods without the threat of random violence, and those who cannot.

This dichotomy begs two related questions. First, most obvious, and somewhat rhetorical – how can we accept this situation? How do we justify our outrage at a single (albeit tragic) death in Lincoln, while we simply accept the epidemic of violence in urban centers? Thankfully, the answer to such an obvious question is equally apparent – we cannot. Surely safe homes, safe schools and safe neighborhoods are not foreclosed to that "other America"?

This brings about the second looming question – what to do about it? When confronting a problem as pervasive and loathsome as urban violence, it is easy to ascend to the soapbox and decry the socioeconomic injustices in the world. Disparities in domestic violence, gun violence, gang violence, gangs, crime, school performance, economic justice and opportunity and social status are easy to point out and eloquently to condemn. But simply pointing out problems, and waxing rhetorically, is not enough. Imagine if we truly declared a war on poverty; a war on the "two Americas;" a war on the lack of equal protection and equal justice for all. But to do that, we need realistic solutions that work, not 30-second sound bites, tough talk or promises of a silver bullet.

Third, The Safe Neighborhood Initiative "Solution"

Thankfully, there is a sure-fire recipe for reducing crime and violence in our cities, as a key component in revitalizing these neighborhoods, ensuring safe homes, safe streets, and safe schools. Comprehensive Safe Neighborhood Initiatives can successfully reduce urban crime. We have done it; we know how to do it; we have all the ingredients in every community to launch a coordinated, multi-level and multi-disciplinary effort – spearheaded by strong governmental leadership – to “bundle” a range of law enforcement, prosecution and prevention programs, both in government and in the community. No one program or “element” alone provides the magic bullet or solution to be successful over time, but, together a menu in which each element is critical, offers the opportunity for overall success in reaching our goal of reducing crime and violence, offering economic opportunity, more and better jobs, improved education, accessible civil, health and social services, and more generally, hope.

And it can and has already happened here. For me, it began in 1993 in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office when we joined with a range of law enforcement partners to launch the Safe Neighborhoods Initiative with the hope that, working together as leaders and taking responsibility for reducing urban crime, we could create a robust collaboration of law enforcement, prosecutors, elected officials at the state and local level, combining with active religious leaders, community business, health care, social service agencies, and grassroots community and victim advocacy groups involvement aimed primarily at reducing crime, and the fear of crime, in the highest crime sections of Boston (known as C-11), based on Boston Police comstat data. Our theory was that if the SNI could work in Dorchester, it could work anywhere. It would function as a model of success, using only resources already available in the community – in any community – that could be replicated across the nation. We committed ourselves to act professionally, not politically, and to demonstrate that what we lacked, in the first instance, was not the resources, but the will and the sense of urgency necessary to effect change.

And, over the course of the next few years, by any objective and subjective measure, we succeeded. The so-called "Boston Miracle" (of urban crime and violence reduction) was then, and still is, widely touted, recorded and reported. (I will provide cites/links which document the SNI partnerships and results in the next blog entry.) These SNI partnerships of community police and prosecutors, local courts and probation, federal prosecutors, federal and state gun, gang and drug task forces, gun tracing projects, and Boston gang, juvenile and street workers, and tough but smart priority prosecution, probation and sentence practices were important, but the bang for the buck also came from the integration into the core of this effort of community groups and programs. The Ten Point Coalition, the Dorchester Federated Association, the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, the Bowdoin-Geneva Merchants’ Associations and health center, the street workers and Log School, and programs like This Neighborhood Means Business, plus the widely acclaimed SCORE conflict resolution program in the schools, are just several key examples of social, economic, education, outreach and community programs that were strengthened by, and reinforced the impact of, the SNI crime reduction strategy. But the most important element was the clearly articulated premise underlying the initial efforts Suffolk Distinct Attorney Ralph Martin, Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans, C-11 Commander Bob Dunford and I stressed – urban crime and violence were not inevitable! We could make a difference; we could ensure urban residents that we had a zero tolerance policy, as a pre-condition for neighborhood and economic revitalization.

Fourth, this then poses to us today The Call to Action Challenge

If we can devise, build and pay for the Big Dig over two or more decades, find the resources to fund the now nearly decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bail out and protect the country's major financial institutions, use stimulus money to reinvest in our transportation infrastructure, and tolerate, if not encourage, the corporate, business, union and other special interests to spend millions for lobbyists and influence to make casinos and slots a major economic development priority, surely we can expend the energy necessary to give people the capacity to reclaim our communities! And this would really be a major economic stimulus! This is not Republican or Democrat, Liberal or Conservative issue – this is the American Way – making our communities safe for democracy to flourish! Yes, with all due respect, from my reading of the New Testament, it is what “Jesus would do”. It is what calculating, tough businessmen concerned about a strong and vibrant consumer economy should do. It is what we must do! Revitalizing our urban communities is about reclaiming our Democratic values. Eliminating the “Two Americas” is about restoring domestic tranquility, security, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

And it can be done. (More detail to come in Part II)

This is a Community Voices blog. This blog is not written or edited by the staff of Boston.com or The Boston Globe. The author is solely responsible for its contents.
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About the author

Scott Harshbarger's distinguished public career includes serving two terms as Massachusetts Attorney General (and President of the National Association of Attorneys General)  and as the Democratic candidate for Governor of More »

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