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Anticrime effort jolted by arrests

3 street workers facing drug, assault charges

Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff/File Boston street workers are hired to steer young people away from lives of crime in the city.
Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff/File
Boston street workers are hired to steer young people away from lives of crime in the city. (Dominic Chavez/Globe Staff/File)
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / February 13, 2010

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Three Boston street workers hired to steer young people away from lives of crime have themselves been arrested since June, challenging ambitious efforts by the city and the Boston Foundation to guide gang members toward rehabilitation.

Last month, a 44-year-old street worker funded by the Boston Foundation was arrested in Newton and charged with heroin possession and passing about $1,500 in counterfeit bills to buy goods at T.J. Maxx. Two months earlier, another worker hired through the foundation was charged with assaulting a police officer on a Dorchester street. And last June, a street worker hired by the city was charged with possession of a pound of marijuana with intent to distribute the drug.

Community and religious leaders say the recent spate of problems reflects the challenges of a job that demands civilians go unarmed into the streets and interact with gang members who create much of the havoc in some city neighborhoods. Many of the street workers have criminal backgrounds, which can give them credibility with gang members, but also means they could be tempted to return to lives of crime.

“We ask a lot of them, to go out in the neighborhood and deal with some unbelievable problems,’’ said state Representative Elizabeth Malia, a Jamaica Plain Democrat whose district includes parts of Dorchester and Roxbury, where street workers are often assigned. “It doesn’t surprise me that you’re going to have, not so much bad apples, but people who slide off the path.’’

Robert Lewis Jr., a Boston Foundation vice president, said he and Boston police Deputy Superintendent Gary French met with street workers after the most recent arrest and told them that such behavior can hurt the overall program.

“This can have an impact on, honestly, the livelihood of this initiative, on fund-raising, our credibility and validity in the community,’’ Lewis recalled saying. “You can’t live a double life.’’

The Boston Foundation has been attempting to bolster the city’s street worker program with the creation of StreetSafe, an initiative designed to fight crime in five neighborhoods, mostly along Blue Hill Avenue. The foundation is financing the hiring of 20 street workers, who - unlike the city’s 28 street workers - can work late-evening hours and are not disqualified by having a criminal record.

“I have great respect for anyone who decides to do this kind of work,’’ said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, executive director of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, which manages the payroll for the StreetSafe workers. “It requires mental toughness and a kind of strength of character and decision-making that you can’t just get anybody to do.’’

The reaction to the arrests has been swift. Rodney Mitchell, the city worker charged with possession of marijuana, was placed on administrative leave, and later fired. Anthony Robinson, 49, who was accused of assault, and Steven Hailey, 44, who is facing the counterfeiting and heroin possession charges, were also dismissed, said Lewis, who oversees StreetSafe.

Robinson had been arrested in the past for minor larcenies. Hailey was sentenced to six to nine years for a 1999 manslaughter charge. Contacted this week, Mitchell declined to comment. Several efforts to reach Robinson and Hailey for comment were unsuccessful. None of the men has been convicted of the most recent charges.

StreetSafe was announced in late 2008 as a way to fight crime by targeting about 2,000 young criminals who police say are connected to more than three-quarters of Boston’s violence. The foundation is committed to a five-year, $20 million effort to fund StreetSafe, which organizers say will eventually provide services like counseling and jobs to gang members and former offenders. Thus far, foundation officials say, they raised nearly $10 million to finance the program’s first two years.

Lewis said the street workers are vetted through a careful process that includes the Boston Police Department and community leaders. Police screen the list of potential hires to ensure none of them have pending criminal charges against them, and that they are not known to be currently involved in crime. Neighborhood and religious leaders review the names and give Lewis insights into how applicants are regarded in the community, he said.

The job puts them in harm’s way. In August, William Harvey, who works as a street worker for the city, was shot in the head as he was giving a ride to one of the teenagers he works with. Harvey survived and is back at work, although at a desk, not on the streets.

As a result of the shooting, City Council member Felix Arroyo has proposed a hearing to consider an increase in the compensation of city street workers injured on the job.

The public and private street workers wear an almost identical uniform - blue and orange shirts and jackets - and are deployed by Chris Byner, the division manager at the Boston Centers for Youth and Families. Despite some personality conflicts at the beginning, the two groups of street workers have been working closely together, sharing information on offenders and gang members and collaborating with police, Byner and foundation officials said.

Byner said he does not believe the recent arrests of three street workers reflect an overall problem with the program.

“We try to do the best job we can, in terms of trying to stay on top folks professionally, and hope it connects to their personal lives,’’ he said. “But we can’t be foolproof.’’

Paul Grogan, president and chief executive of the Boston Foundation, said the arrests will not change StreetSafe’s approach, and its willingness to consider as street workers people with criminal records.

“There is a risk,’’ Grogan said. “We hope that’s it. I think the two [StreetSafe] incidents will help ensure that that’s it, because there has been a demonstration of zero tolerance.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.