Tom Menino: Meddling While Boston Burns
IT WAS A TYPICAL TOM MENINO plan, by which I mean a plan to pile on top of so many others, accumulating like the snow of all the winter’s storms. The mayor highlighted it in Faneuil Hall while delivering his 18th State of the City address this January. All anyone would talk about later was that he’d entered to the theme from Rocky (take that, would-be successors!), and that he’d emphasized his resiliency by standing behind the podium without crutches, despite the surgery he’d just had on his right knee. The theatrics could have been enough to distract anyone from dry policy drivel, yet the policy held its own. Because the plan I’m talking about ended up revealing more about Menino than a soundtrack ever could.
His proposal called for the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to partner with the Boston Police Department on a new task force. The hope was to take guns out of the hands of bad guys. This seemed like a fine idea. Seventy-two people were killed in Boston in 2010, a nearly 50 percent spike over the previous year. So something had to be done, right? But Boston needs another task force, another new policing initiative, like the mayor needs to test his frail knee on an icy Comm. Ave.
Since 2005 Menino has introduced more than a dozen different police efforts — and these are just the ones on the mayor’s website. That doesn’t include what he’s promoted in his State of the City addresses, ideas such as the Mayors Against Illegal Guns program in 2007, or the partnership with the Boston Housing Authority in 2008, or this year’s alliance with the ATF. Nor does it include all the programs that carry the imprimatur of Police Commissioner Ed Davis—but also the thick smudge of the mayor’s fingerprints. I’m thinking here of stuff like the Partnership Advancing Communities Together, or PACT, designed by Menino’s close ally, BPD Superintendent Paul Joyce. That one hopes to reduce crime by keeping government players informed of the specific bad guys (read: gang members) that the cops would like to take down.
Joyce’s program falls under the rubric of community policing. So do many of the mayor’s other plans. And it’s easy to understand why. Community policing is a golden brand in Boston, a crime-prevention strategy that long ago sent the number of murders in the city plummeting from a historic high (152, in 1990) to a historic low (31, in 1999). It’s the strategy that helped make Boston cops famous and Boston’s mayor — even when he stumbles over big words — seem very smart indeed. That drop in the homicide rate in the ’90s is still described as the Boston Miracle.
The problem today is what Menino asks this golden brand to represent. The sheer number of community-policing initiatives — new ones are introduced each year, sometimes each month — has left community leaders befuddled. Which plan, again, are we following now? It’s not a stretch to say that Menino, in some capacity or another, has launched 20 different community-policing initiatives in the past five years. Many of them muddle if not contradict others. Some are so many evolutions removed from what worked in the ’90s that they shouldn’t even be called community policing. And, as a whole, they seem to be making things worse. The murder rate did increase by 50 percent last year, after all.
Menino is, of course, a domineering man, overinvolved in everything and impatient with many things. But his concern with crime, with murder in particular, goes beyond impatience. Menino’s freaking out a little bit. It isn’t just that murders were up last year. It’s that those murders were ghastly: stripped-naked men shot execution-style, gunned-down two-year-olds, gunned-down pizza delivery guys. Terrible headlines. Too many of them, and a mayor seems ineffective. If that happens to Menino, his tightly bound legacy unravels. And so the mayor keeps searching for the next miracle. But he fails to realize that his search is contributing to the problem.