Tom Menino: Meddling While Boston Burns
HOMICIDES ARE DIFFERENT NOW. They’re predicated on the slightest of slights. Historically, however, murders in this city were tied to gangs dealing drugs. And nobody used to get shot unless what they did harmed the bottom line. “If it wasn’t about dollars,” Vito Gray, a reformed Mission Hill drug lord, once told me, “it didn’t make no sense.”
But this isn’t to say that the underworld acted orderly every day. In 1992, at the funeral service in Mattapan for a young man named Robert Odom, hooded members of a rival gang burst through the doors midservice, shot up the church, and stabbed one teen nine times. The attack horrified the city. Out of that day, though, came Boston’s redemption. An elite force of cops, overseen by Commissioner Paul Evans and organized in part by officer Gary French, concerned themselves with the social issues underlying much of gang involvement: looking at the home life of kids, and keeping track of what they did after school. Religious leaders unified under a new name, the Ten Point Coalition, and did the same kind of social work — finding gangbangers legitimate jobs, for instance. Prosecutors, meanwhile, locked up repeat-offender gang leaders. One got 19 years in prison after he taunted cops by showing them a bullet he held in his hand. Collectively, these works organized around a single community-policing vision: that together the group could not only detect crime as it was happening, but also deter it from happening at all.
It worked. The Boston Miracle sent the murder rate plunging to almost absurd levels and removed top-level criminals from the streets. If anything, the Miracle was too effective. After 2000, with few old-school gang leaders around, the mindset of Boston gangs began to change. No one taught the new guys how to act: The same kids who lacked leadership models in their biological families found no supervision within their surrogate ones, either. And so the murders of the new century began to break the street’s old codes. Hits happened with no regard for the bottom line. Instead these gang members, teenagers and young adults, had petty beefs with one another, and settled them in predictably immature and deadly ways — sometimes in broad daylight, around people of means.
Compounding matters, many of Boston’s community-policing stars had moved on: Prosecutors had been promoted or, like former Suffolk County DA Ralph C. Martin II, had gone into private practice; cops like Gary French had received commendations and now headed up new units, or, like Commissioner Evans, had left the department for new jobs (in Evans’s case, a law-enforcement gig in London). In other words, another leadership vacuum had developed — on the law-and-order side.
As a result, chaos once again reigned. Boston had grisly, even strange deaths: a quadruple murder of four Wakefield High graduates, shot execution-style in the basement of a Dorchester home in which none of them lived. The murder total climbed from 42 in 2003 to 64 in 2004 to 75 in 2005 — a 142 percent increase from 1999. All the while the cops, especially those back at headquarters, fought with one another, ever more publicly, as if blame could slow the rising stats. Boston seemed on the precipice of another degeneration.