Statistics released this week by the Boston Police Department show a slow-down in serious crime across the city, with significant reductions in our neighborhood's two main police districts, C-11 and B-3, compared to last year's figures. The good news is relative: Homicides are well up this year in C-11, where 2008 began with a flurry of gun violence that has slowed, but not ceased, in recent months.
Still, any improvements are leavened by worries that broad economic hardships could fuel an uptick in crime, even as the department looks for ways to contain its own budget without trimming manpower levels.
Homicides have more than doubled in District C-11 - jumping to 16 so far in '08 from 7 in 2007 - but there have been 226 fewer so-called "part one" crimes reported. In District B-3 - which includes Mattapan and parts of Dorchester - the news is even better, especially where violent crime is concerned.
District B-3 has recorded 8 murders since January, while last year at this time B-3 was reeling from 24 killings within the same time frame. As of Nov. 16, there have been 54 homicides in Boston in '08, compared to 61 last year.
Both C-11 and B-3 have seen an increase in robberies and attempted robberies in 2008 - with C-11 logging 350 so far compared to 322 last year. A similar trend is afoot in B-3, where there have been 248 robberies or attempted robberies, compared to 205 last year.
Aggravated assaults - a key crime category that includes shootings and stabbings - are down in both police districts, as are larcenies and attempted larcenies and vehicle thefts.
Emmett Folgert, director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Fields Corner and a longtime anti-violence advocate, sees promise in the numbers.
"All the [violent categories] except for homicides are down. And that's a trend. The homicides are horrible of course, but to see these other numbers - especially aggravated assaults - going down is a good predictor for the future. This is a good report card," says Folgert.
Police Commissioner Edward Davis said that a combination of strategies - from improved case clearance rates in the homicide unit to dedicated Safe Streets teams in targeted business districts - are largely responsible for the statistical turn.
"It's good news. The [district] commanders are actively engaged in the community and the community is responding too," said Davis. "We have been doing a lot of enforcement. We're really throwing every thing we have at the violence and I like to think there are fewer guns on the streets as a result."
Captain James Claiborne, the commander at district B-3, credits several policing strategies with the reduction in violent crime on his area, but adds that "the primary reason for the decrease in murders and shootings is we don't have any ongoing cycles of retaliatory violence."
"I give credit to the young people in the district who chose not to pull the trigger," says Claiborne.
Other factors at work on B-3, Claiborne says, include an aggressive effort to set up new crime watches (16 have begun meeting in the last year, he says), an influx of newly-minted detectives last January and a court supervision project that monitors young adults who are on probation.
"The supervision project ensures that folks who are convicted conform to conditions of probation, like curfews or stay-away orders. It's been very responsive. At one point we had 16 young people in DYS because they thought their probations were a joke," Claiborne said.
A partnership with the US Attorney's office has also resulted in convictions of so-called "impact players."
"We're doing a better job investigating and a better job with officers being here longer. They have an expanded knowledge of who the bad guys are," Claiborne said.
Gareth Kinkead, who directs the Colorado Street Citizens Group near Mattapan's Almont Park, says that his members have taken notice of the security improvements in recent months.
"We have to give credit to the BPD: they have been patrolling the area. And a lot of the youth are utilizing the park a bit more, I think, because of efforts by some of the citizens groups such as ours who have been encouraging the youth. The more good folks who come out, some of the bad guys back off," Kinkead said.
On Area C-11, where the homicide rate has doubled, there is more optimism as the calendar year nears its final weeks - and certainly more anecdotal evidence to support such optimism than there was as the year began.
Phil Carver, president of the Pope's Hill Neighborhood Association, says residents in what he calls the Greater Neponset area have been encouraged by a recent deployment of a bicycle unit, which has been on patrol in that section of District 11 since late September. The six-officer team was ordered into service by Commissioner Ed Davis after he met with Carver and a group of other civic leaders who expressed concern about public safety.
"Statistics are sometimes deceiving," Carver said of the latest BPD numbers. "The overall mood in Greater Neponset is that these bicycle patrols have been hugely effective. Perception is reality and just having the police presence in the community has been huge.
"We're hoping [Davis] keeps these patrols in place until January and that they return in the spring. We don't want to be stuck behind the eight-ball again and have to reinvent the process to get the police involved. They've got a model that's been proven effective," says Carver.
Still, there are reasons for activists to worry about maintaining current levels of police presence. With a recession looming, maintaining level resources for the BPD seems more and more challening.
Two weeks ago, a harbinger of cuts at the district level was seen in the re-assignment of two longtime community service officers, who work as liasons with the public in responding to a variety of quality of life complaints. The cut-back was short-lived. The re-assignments were rescinded within days of the initial order, the result - according to several sources - of complaints from residents to the BPD and City Hall.
Davis says that there is no immediate plan to trim from district CSO staff - or any specialized units - at this point, although he emphasizes that he can offer "no promises" in the current fiscal climate.
"We have to be very cognizant of our expenditures on overtime," Davis said. "No one wants to change a system that's effective, but we're making some common sense controls. We have been modeling a lot of potential cutbacks, but we're not going to change anyone's assignment right now."
Folgert says that - even if the numbers are moving in the right direction - there needs to be a sea-change in the way people in hard-hit communities view their role in responding to violence.
"Even though we're making progress, it's difficult to see these numbers. We're never going to get the significant drop we all want until people start testifying," says Folgert. "I can recall a time when we had a 75 percent conviction rate on homicides. And it was because people just didn't want to live on same street as someone who killed someone. We have to get back to that."