It has become a common refrain after bouts of violence in Boston’s neighborhoods: Mayor Thomas M. Menino, while denouncing the crime and the criminal, has sought to reassure residents that the city as a whole remains safe, with a declining crime rate.
But the two men looking to replace him in January are speaking differently about crime, arguing that the city has been divided into those neighborhoods where gun violence is rare and those where shootings and murders feel commonplace.
Throughout their respective campaigns, and in separate interviews with The Boston Globe, the mayoral candidates, Councilor at Large John R. Connolly and state Representative Martin J. Walsh, have shifted the tone of the conversation about the city’s crime problems. Their rhetoric is more confrontational, invoking what some have called “the two Bostons.”
The city has seen a 30 percent drop in violent crime in the last six years, but shootings remain pervasive in some neighborhoods.
Over the summer, a sharp increase in shootings led to an outcry from community leaders who questioned the city’s commitment to helping crime-plagued neighborhoods.
“We have to listen closely to people who experience a very different Boston than most,” Connolly said.
Said Walsh: “Everyone is defensive at first. But if you recognize that we have an issue, we have to talk about that.”
Beyond a willingness to discuss violence more openly, both men are offering different prescriptions for reducing the number of shootings and homicides in the city, particularly the neighborhoods where they are most concentrated: Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan.
Walsh said he would create a committee to audit Boston’s programs and policies and study strategies used in other cities.
“If [violence] is so limited to three areas, why can’t we do a better job of finding out the root cause and addressing it?” he said.
Walsh said the next mayor’s challenge will be to energize the entire city into realizing that even though violence is concentrated in a handful of neighborhoods, it affects the entire city.
Walsh, who was 22 when he was grazed by a bullet meant for another man, said even he finds himself desensitized after reading so many headlines about violence.
“It sounds crazy but . . . I’ve become like the rest of the public,” he said.
As mayor, Connolly said, he would host a citywide summit, inviting relatives of those killed by violence and young men trying to break out of gangs to talk about how to end gun violence. He has talked about holding a monthly meeting with gang leaders, and envisions a community policing program that calls on officers to meet every resident in their district.
“I want to see police officers knocking on doors like politicians and introducing themselves to neighbors,” he said.
The candidates share many similar views: They want to keep the department’s Safe Street teams, units of walking beats that patrol the roughest neighborhoods; they believe the city needs better reentry programs for men and women leaving prison; and they want to see more consistency and transparency in the way police officers are punished.
The new mayor will be in a position to name his own commissioner, as Edward Davis is stepping down Friday. Both candidates vowed not to interfere with the commissioner’s promotions or demotions of commanders, something Menino was often accused by some of doing in the department.
“That’s not my style. I’m not a micromanager,” Connolly said, adding he did not believe Menino interfered inappropriately in the department. “That should be about the best people being promoted and doing the job.”
Said Walsh: “The mayor can give his opinion, but there is a process set up in place. I’m not a police officer and I think it’s important that we allow [commissioners] to do their job.”
They both agree that the next commissioner must have a strong commitment to community policing and diversifying the department, though neither proposed a plan for how he would vet the candidates for the top spot.
Connolly’s public safety platform calls for reviving the gun buyback program, a police-run effort that sought to take illegal guns off the street.
Police would accept the guns from people who want to hand them over, no questions asked, and in exchange give them gift cards to stores such as Home Depot.
But often, people came with legal guns, such as antique firearms they wanted to fob off on police in exchange for the gift cards.
Asked how he would prevent that, Connolly said: “Look, it’s not the cure-all but it helps to get real community involvement. I’m willing to work with all the partners to make sure it’s as effective as it can be.”
Connolly also has a plan to bring more minority officers into the department, calling for a criminal justice program at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, where students are predominantly black and Latino.
He envisions linking it to a restored cadet program, which was cut in 2009 amid budget woes.
Walsh does not state specific proposals about how to recruit more minority men and women to take the Civil Service exam that’s required to become an officer beyond stating that the department needs to do a better job of informing the public about openings.
He said the department should provide prep courses for women and minority candidates who want to take the promotional exam.
Walsh becomes impassioned when he talks about preventing violence against women, a problem he said he has witnessed as the state representative for a district that covers Dorchester, where street prostitution has been prevalent.
He said the department’s anti-human-trafficking unit needs to be expanded well beyond a squad of one sergeant and three detectives. Police need to be more aggressive about targeting affluent men who solicit young women and bring them to posh city hotels that look the other way, Walsh said.
“It kind of gets swept under the rug,” he said. “Under my administration that will not happen.”
Both men acknowledge they have more to learn about policing, an issue that has not played a significant role in either candidate’s career.
Connolly is a former teacher and corporate lawyer. Walsh is a former labor leader.
In creating his public safety platform, Walsh said, he relied heavily on the counsel of current and retired police officers.
The campaign declined to identify the current law enforcement officials at their request.
Genevieve King, a retired Boston police captain who ran the sexual assault unit, provided him insight on human trafficking and prostitution.
“He sees the prostitutes on Dorchester Avenue. He understands what’s behind it,” King said.
“He knows they’re not out there willingly. . . . He will follow through.”
Connolly sought the advice of Donnell Singleton, program coordinator of StreetSafe Boston, which trains people to work with gang members.
When Connolly asked what drives gun violence, Singleton arranged a meeting at the Roxbury YMCA between Connolly and four gang leaders.
Singleton said those men left wanting to help the candidate with his campaign.
“ ‘Can we knock on doors? Can we put some signs up?’ ” Singleton said, recalling their enthusiasm. “There’s been a match lit under their feet.”