Q: What’s the Best Way to Turn Around a Young Street Thug? A: Maybe with a Former Street Thug.

So what happened? September 11, for one. National funding for domestic crime prevention was transferred to the war on terror. More than that, though, violent crime in Boston began to edge up—from 40 homicides in 2000 to 75 five years later—because of “egos,” says Chris Byner, a longtime community worker for the city now overseeing the day-to-day operations of the street-worker program. “Egos got in the way. People started to think they were bigger than the group.” Eugene Rivers split from the other ministers and formed the National Ten Point Coalition. Police Commissioner Evans took a prestigious law enforcement job in England. Moreover, gang unit cops got promoted. Government attorneys received better pay and more-complex cases. Byner himself went from a street worker to the program’s supervisor. There’s little shame in this—commendations follow exemplary achievement, after all—but the Miracle workers’ promotions, Byner says, created a vacuum of knowledge similar to that which gang members faced after Operation Ceasefire. “The people who invested in this, they’re gone,” he says.

Lastly, and most important, those same leaders of the 1990s failed to heed the demographics. A report during the halcyon Miracle days, from Northeastern criminologist James Alan Fox, noted a coming population boom of minority teenagers. When Operation Ceasefire ended in 2000, and with it, in hindsight, the Miracle, those kids were the new foot soldiers of their street gangs. Only now, they didn’t have elders to tell them the streets’ code of ethics; those guys were often locked up. Within this vacuum the kids made their own rules and fired their petty jealousies at each other, increasingly in broad daylight, and around people of legitimate means.

The game changed. Now you only had to demand respect, instead of demanding fat profits and then respect. That’s a key distinction.

Because what’s happening today is tough to police. Yes, the murders are down from the pre-Miracle days—63 last year, according to police department figures, a murder rate two and a half times lower than that of Baltimore, whose population roughly mirrors Boston’s. But the brazenness and seeming randomness of many of today’s shootings are in some ways scarier than in the 1980s. Soheil Turner, for instance, a 15-year-old from Orchard Park in Roxbury who was gunned down at 7:20 a.m. on May 7 while waiting for the bus to school—his alleged killer reportedly didn’t like guys from Orchard Park and so didn’t think much of taking Turner’s life. He went to school that day.

“The rules are different,” says Boston Police Superintendent Paul Joyce, who worked in the 1990s in the department’s gang unit. “You can have two gang members from rival gangs, they’re not fighting over the gang issues. They’re fighting over personal issues. These personal issues can be so broadly defined…that it is very hard to police.” This decade has been marked, then, by an almost granular approach to investigations: looking at the individuals’ past within these gangs, and who their friends and enemies were, and what their mood might have been at the time of the shooting. That’s no easy feat, and though Joyce insists the department receives good intelligence, only 44 percent of homicides were solved last year, according to the FBI. This doesn’t bode well for Commissioner Ed Davis, who two years ago strengthened the homicide unit in response to similarly low clearance rates.

If anything, the Boston Foundation’s street workers will look to reclaim the glory of the 1990s. It’s not as if the street-worker program dropped off entirely, either: Both the city and the Boston Ten Point Coalition employ their own street workers, who work the day shift and go where the trouble is. The Boston Foundation takes the night shift—from 4 to midnight—and assigns its workers to patrol only five mini neighborhoods in the South End, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. This specialization will build trust between workers and young thugs. Information will flow. The irony is what the street workers will do with that.

Nothing, really. Cops like Joyce signed off on the street-worker program not least because Commissioner Davis is a big proponent of community policing. But the street workers won’t be sharing any information with the cops; Lewis and Byner and the street workers themselves are firm on this point. To do otherwise would break the trust they have with the kids.

So the cops will instead regularly stop by the street workers’ meetings, and debrief them on all criminal activity in their neighborhoods. The street workers, in turn, according to one who didn’t want to be named lest he jeopardize his standing in the neighborhood, will offer the cops vague information when they hear something, and ask that a patrol car be on a certain block at a certain hour. The workers can then go back to the kids and tell them that the cops have heard about their plans, and advise them to call it off for the night.
With the street workers serving as the leaders the gangs once had, “everybody wins,” this street worker says.

This program is structured on competing groups’ trusting each other. Trust is all anyone has here. The kids must trust the street workers will keep their secrets; the street workers must trust themselves—especially the ex-cons among them—that they can walk their old turf without enjoying its trappings; the cops must trust the street workers for the same reason, as must Robert Lewis Jr., that the street workers he’s vouching for don’t betray him; the Boston Foundation must trust Lewis, as he leads it into uncharted territory; the city of Boston, especially the mayor’s office, must trust the foundation when it says it’s out to better Boston, and not score political points, a long-held suspicion among Menino’s ranks.

It could go on, too. Lewis says there’s talk of presenting President Obama with a plan to launch similar programs in 12 cities if ours works well first.
And to think that the whole thing rests on the shoulders of men like Vito Gray.

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  • Alice H.

    At 93, I don’t feel equipped to do something more specific than applaud the street workers and Boston Foundation. And I applaud every young person who responds to an opportunity to hold down a job, which won’t pay what dealing in drugs does.
    Now to make a contribution to Boston Foundation.

  • Alice H

    see above