February 9, 2006

Boston Struggling Against Tide of Gun Violence

By Jason Szep

BOSTON -- In one of Boston's toughest neighborhoods, Anthony Cutone looks out the window of his unmarked police car at a makeshift memorial to one of dozens of young men slain in a wave of gun violence.

"This one is pretty new, just a few weeks old," he says, pointing at a street lamp festooned with flowers. During a short drive, he points out other new shrines to young murder victims in the Roxbury district he has patrolled for eight years.

Boston, once a model city in America's battle against gun violence, faces a surge in homicides blamed by local authorities on cuts in federal funding for police on the beat, a rise in illegal gun trafficking and a fast-growing inner-city youth population.

Boston stands out because it was seen as a leader in halting violent crime in the late 1990s, when politicians basked in what became known as the "Boston Miracle." Homicides collapsed 77 percent from 1990 to 1997 and the city went for almost two years without a homicide against anybody under 18.

Fast-forward to 2006. Homicides reached a 10-year high last year, rising 17 percent to 75 while the nation's largest cities -- Los Angeles, New York and Chicago -- all recorded lower homicide rates. January saw gun murders doubling in Boston and non-fatal shootings leaping 189 percent from a year ago.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino says illegal gun trafficking is fueling the violence and plans to announce a campaign with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other big city mayors meant to reduce gun violence nationwide.

Gun trafficking in the northeastern United States has swelled in the past six years, according to Boston authorities. While Massachusetts' gun laws are relatively strict, requiring a $100 state permit for each gun purchase, buying a gun in neighboring Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine is easier.

"Traffickers tend to go into a gun shop with a purchaser who is a resident of the state and buy 12 or 20 handguns at a time, and then drive to a state like Massachusetts where the laws are strict and sell them at a big markup. It's very profitable," said Dennis Hennigan, legal director of the Washington-based Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence.

Many of the guns seized on the street are also older and harder to trace than the guns found in the 1990s, which can complicate an investigation, said Thomas D'Ambrosio, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms who works at Boston's police headquarters.

When police find a gun, they check the serial number and call the manufacturer to find out where it was sold. Federal law prohibits the creation of a national database of gun owners. This means authorities must telephone gun shops and ask them to check their paper records to find out who bought the gun. The process can take months if a gun passes through several owners.


But tackling gun traffickers may not be enough to revive the "Boston Miracle," said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and a former crime analyst at Harvard who advised Boston's police authorities in the 1990s.

He said Boston abandoned much of the strategy that worked so well in the 1990s. "Operation Ceasefire," as it was called, identified gang members, offered to help them in a partnership with clergy and community leaders, and threatened them with jail and other penalties if they did not cooperate.

It fell victim to community divisions and budget cuts and police say the city has changed in ways that make fighting crime more difficult now than seven years ago.

The population of male teenagers, a source of violent crime, has surged. A generation of criminals arrested in a crackdown on crime a decade ago are being released.

Belt-tightening has reduced the size of Boston's police force by about 10 percent since 1999 to 2,036 officers.

Menino said the administration of President George W. Bush has not helped by cutting funding for former President Bill Clinton's signature COPS Program that put thousands of police on the streets. Its funding fell to $102 million in fiscal 2007 from $487 million in 2004 and $1.5 billion in 1998, according to the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

"We're doing more with less these days," Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole told Reuters. "We haven't had to lay anyone off like some other cities but we've dramatically reduced the size of the department through attrition," she added. "Sure I definitely need more cops on the beat."

To cope with fewer resources, she has tightened links between civilian crime analysts who crunch crime data and detectives and federal agents to funnel resources into troubled areas. Her force is also reviewing ways to revive parts of "Operating Ceasefire," Boston police say.