Tom Menino: Meddling While Boston Burns
None of this is a question of whether the police department or Menino cares. As Menino tells me, “I want to make sure that every kid is safe.” It is a question of whether what he’s doing is actually helping — especially when Menino is so often tempted by new ideas. Case in point: Earlier this year the department announced a new focus on older drug dealers and ex-cons as the instigators of crime. Ed Davis believes the rise in homicides last year was partly due to the quasi-legalization of weed; you can keep an ounce on you now, as long as you’re not dealing it. This relaxed stance, Davis thinks, has increased the demand for pot sold on the streets. And this influences the murder rate, because ex-cons look to steal the stashes of current dealers and end up in violent situations. However, community activist Jorge Martinez, of the group Project RIGHT, says drugs play no more of a role in the city’s murders than they ever have. “The problems are the beefs [between kids],” Martinez says. “Same as it’s always been.” The police department says it has stats to back up Davis’s contention, but it refuses to share them with the public.
Why push the ex-con angle at all? Because if you can identify a new cause of a long-standing problem, you can introduce new solutions. The new head of the drug unit, for example, is a hard-ass cop named Bobby Merner who has never had a reputation for tolerating all this liberal, limp-wristed, let’s-look-at-the-underlying-social-issues crap. Merner’ll just take people down. Not for nothing was he promoted around the same time Gary French was demoted.
Menino is nervous. If he’s thinking about his legacy at all — and he has to be, given how unkind the fifth term has been to his aging body — then he’s thinking about the two registers that predict whether a city prospers, which is to say, whether affluent people become long-term residents: decent schools and a low crime rate. (It’s telling how Menino addresses problems on these fronts with the same meddling impatience. Boston Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson should buy Davis a beer to commiserate.)
But low crime is even more fundamental than good schools. Menino knows that the industries he’s lured to Boston, the urban core he’s revitalized, the clean parks, graffiti-free subway cars, public theater in the summer, tree lightings in the winter, all his successes, everything that will establish him as not only Boston’s longest-serving mayor but maybe, just maybe, its best, depends first on a low crime rate. Without that, he ends his career on a dismal, dreary note, clouding how history views him. With a high crime rate, Menino becomes the Italian Kevin White.
He is cursed with a certainty that his involvement makes any situation better. “Look, everybody can be critical,” Menino says. “But we have to act…. That’s what I’m about.” Every time he starts something new, though, he’s also starting over. When everything is community policing, the perception is that nothing is. The city does not need 20 different initiatives. It needs a more unified plan, practiced by every neighborhood’s concerned residents. Everything else is superfluous and confounding. Ours is a reactionary mayor. Here’s hoping he reacts to this, too.