A Boston Police initiative aimed at conducting consensual home inspections in search for illegal firearms got a decidedly negative reception at a packed community meeting near Franklin Park last Thursday evening. The Safe Home program, which police officials introduced in concept last fall, has not yet been launched. Police have planned to pilot the initiative in high-risk neighborhoods such as Geneva Bowdoin, Grove Hall, Egleston Square and parts of Mattapan in the coming weeks. Under the plan, a three-person team of officers would visit homes of at-risk teens who are not yet considered "impact players" in gang or drug activity, but who police believe might be harboring weapons.
A number of elected officials and community leaders voiced outright opposition to the initiative, however, during last Thursday's forum at the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement headquarters on Columbia Road. Many among the crowd of over 100 parents, police officers, community activists and youths gathered in the hall expressed outrage at the Boston Police Department's approach and worried that the program was aimed at the wrong targets.
"This program is like trying to fix a leak under your sink by using a bucket to catch the water - you have to go straight to the source," said State Senator Dianne Wilkerson. "Our government just shot a satellite out of the sky in a single shot, but they can't find where the guns are coming from? They can find where they are and where they land but they can't tell us where they come from?"
"And adults, shame on you," Wilkerson continued. "Calling the police on your children is like saying 'we can't figure them out so you take them.' This [Safe Home] should be the absolute last resort."
BPD Deputy Gary French, who also attended the meeting, continued to support and defend the ambitions of Safe Home.
"We are not interested in filing charges against any youth or causing problems for any families," French told the Reporter in an interview earlier this week. "Anything we find goes into an isolated database. No information goes to school officials, no information goes to public housing authorities and no information goes to immigration. We feel many people do not have a fair understanding of what this program is. We are about taking guns away from youth and preventing so many senseless deaths."
The lead organizer of last week's forum is Jamarhl Crawford, 36, who is the chairman of the Boston chapter of the New Black Panther Party. Crawford said the summit was designed to provide the community with balanced information on Safe Home.
"They [BPD] have failed to earn our trust, the city has failed in providing positive resources to the youth and we as a community have failed to keep our streets safe," said Crawford. "And now BPD wants to walk into our homes to fix what never should have been an issue in the first place.
"They have had the opportunity to present the idea of Safe Home in over twenty meetings and have been telling only their side-- which are often outright lies," Crawford said. "Here we will provide residents with information they have not heard, inform them about consequences of this program they might not know about and then let them make their own decision on whether they are for or against Safe Home."
The forum included a panel with Officer Angela Mitchell, president of MAMLEO, Howard Manly, executive editor of the Bay State Banner, and Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. The night kicked off with testimonies about the pros and cons of the Safe Home program.
BPD officials say that the program will be completely voluntary and based on anonymity. Case files would be kept in school police offices as part of an isolated database, not open to other investigations. Only in cases involving signs of "significant" criminal conduct would officers obtain a search warrant. Youths found to be harboring weapons would then be referred to programs where officers will track their progress.
Throughout the evening, skeptical adults and young people expressed a litany of concerns: If the law is for everyone, why bring this initiative only into certain neighborhoods? What if a parent agrees to the search, but the youth does not; does that child get arrested for disorderly conduct? Once a search begins and a parent decides it is getting out of hand and wants to end it, do the police listen? What happens to a child whose home is searched and something illicit is found? Can they be prosecuted? Can they be expelled from school? Can the family lose their housing? Can immigration be an issue? Why are we only focusing on juveniles?
Lisa Thurau-Gray, managing director of Boston's Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School, says the root of the violence is the prejudice that certain youth face.
"Police officers treat kids with a broad brush - just by looking at them they have developed a preconceived notion - and kids recognize this. And when they see that just the color of their skin is what inspires such prejudice from the police then what reason do they have to respect authority?" said Thurau-Gray, who has worked as a policy specialist at JJC since 1999. "When children feel they need to take law, justice and their protection into their own hands, we have failed them," continued Thurau-Gray.
City Councillors Michael Flaherty, Chuck Turner and State Rep. Willie Mae Allen also attended the meeting. Councillor Sam Yoon - who said he had accompanied officers on several of their home visits to "at risk" families through a different initiative, Operation Homefront - voiced his approval of the program.Yoon said he has concluded that it made sense for police to interact with residents in order to put an end to youth violence.
Others on hand last Thursday offered other recommendations and alternatives to Safe Home, such as the BPD offering a hotline number where concerned parents could call and ask for assistance instead of them just showing up at homes. Also emphasized was the need for funding for youth programs like Teen Empowerment and an increase in opportunities for jobs and resource centers.
"You can't just take away 80 percent of the money and then ask what's wrong with the kids!"said Sen. Wilkerson, addressing the city and state's refusal to provide additional funds. "Our government has lost their minds!"
"This is one of the best programs the Boston police department has to offer," said Deputy French. "The only reason we don't include everyone in this [Safe Home] is because once you're legally an adult [17 and up] there becomes the issue of privacy. We are working directly with juveniles because their parents still have legal rights over them. And we are not only stopping at the home searches, we will also work to place these youth in programs that will provide them with the guidance and opportunities they need and deserve.
As of yet Safe Home does not have a start date, but is scheduled to begin in a few weeks, according to French.