Last winter, Boston police noticed a rise in shootings around Humboldt Avenue in Roxbury, a section of the city historically plagued by gang violence. A handful of officers was assigned to do undercover drug buys a couple of times a week, hoping to gather enough intelligence to take some violent offenders off the street.
Then in January, Gabriel Clarke, a 13-year-old seventh-grader, was shot in the stomach on his way to church choir practice.
Suddenly, as many as 24 officers from the drug and gang units were on the street four times a week, approaching known drug dealers with a history of carrying guns. To build their cases, the officers bought bags of crack cocaine and heroin from dealers and conducted video surveillance of them.
“This would have been a much smaller operation, had it not been for that shooting,” Boston Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said.
Operation H, as the four-month sting became known, culminated in more than 100 officers fanning out across the city at dawn Tuesday, pulling dozens of alleged dealers, some described as gang members, from their beds. By the end of the day, 58 people, including two women, were in custody; 10 remained at large.
As much as the raids were a response to the Jan. 11 shooting that almost killed Clarke, police said the operation was also an attempt to prevent the swell of violence that often comes as the summer approaches. Though most of the arrests were on drug distribution charges, Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said many of the offenders have violent criminal histories.
“Let this morning's events set a tone for the months to come,” Conley said during a press conference at Boston police headquarters. “We’re not going to tolerate violent crimes and drug feuds in Boston. If you pick up a gun, if you sell dope, if you bring chaos into your community, Boston police and the Suffolk district attorney’s office are coming after you.”
But in the community, some were skeptical that the raids would make a lasting difference.
“In the long run, I don’t think it’s going to have the sustaining effect of rebuilding our neighborhoods,” said Rufus J. Faulk, a program director at the Boston TenPoint Coalition, which works to prevent gang violence.
He praised police and prosecutors, thanking them for holding violent offenders accountable. “But we can’t arrest our way out of this issue,” Faulk said. “Until we put the same vigilance around full employment for youth, helping them prepare for college and trade schools and public schools, the cycle is going to keep recurring.”
Faulk’s plea came as state lawmakers are considering deep funding cuts for a youth summer jobs program, even as teen unemployment remains near record levels. Conley said that officials would be reaching out to the young relatives of those arrested to see what kind of services they need.
Davis said the raids also served another purpose: putting pressure on those arrested to provide information about more serious crimes.
“We’re hoping that might be the case in the Gabriel Clarke incident,” he said. No one has been arrested in that shooting.
The attack on Clarke was one of nine nonfatal shootings in the Humboldt Avenue area in 2013, Conley said. Three people have been killed, and there have been 17 calls to police for shots fired. Clarke, who was walking to the Berea Seventh-day Adventist Church, is believed to have been an innocent victim caught in a gang rivalry.
Police did not say how many of the people swept up in the raid were gang members. Between January and May, undercover officers bought drugs from 63 individuals. The buys were usually made during the day: One officer bought $100 worth of heroin from a dealer at a McDonald’s off Warren Street; another bought a $30 bag of crack cocaine on the street.
Four of the 63 people have no previous criminal background. The vast majority, however, have long records of drug dealing, gun possession, or both, as well as a history of violating probation or failing to show up to court, officials said.
Four men were arraigned in Suffolk Superior Court. All four pleaded not guilty. They were Taji Clark, 23, of Mattapan, who was charged with distribution of a Class B substance; Steven Gonzalez, 23, of the South End, charged with distribution of heroin; James McGee, 31, of Mattapan, charged with distribution of a Class B substance; and Tony Smith, 44, of Roxbury, charged with distribution of cocaine. Bail for Clark was set at $3,500 cash; while bail for Gonzalez was set at $7,500 cash. Smith was ordered held on $15,000 cash bail, and McGee was released on his own recognizance.
Defense attorney Michelle Troiano represented all four. She described Gonzalez as a young father who works as a maintenance man. Smith, she said, is a groundskeeper and lives with his girlfriend.
More arraignments are expected Wednesday.