The gang unit officers spotted the 17-year-old through the windshield of their beat-up, unmarked car, right where they thought he would be — with friends by the stoop of a brick apartment building, wearing a Red Sox hat and drinking from a Styrofoam cup.
There was a warrant out on him for violating parole on a drug charge, and they steered the car toward the group. The 17-year-old looked up, spotted them, and took off at a sprint, disappearing down a side street. The officer behind the wheel punched the engine and sped around the corner after him.
It was just the kind of situation that officers have come to regard as among the most perilous they face, when things happen fast and unpredictably.
Boston’s gang unit officers are trained to be more than enforcers. They try to coax young people away from gang life, help them get jobs, drug treatment, housing, or a spot in a summer camp.
But that line between ally and enforcer is a delicate one to walk. No one needed reminding that in March a gang unit officer, John Moynihan, had been shot point-blank in the face. And with police across the country under intense scrutiny for use of force in neighborhoods like this, the events unfolding now were the kind that could quickly lead to disaster.
The side street turned out to be a dead end, and the teenager stopped running and sat down on a front porch as the officers jumped out.
“You got a warrant?” the young man shouted, as his friends spilled off their stoop, demanding to know why officers were arresting him.
“That’s my brother!” yelled one of the young men in the crowd drawing around. For a moment, the officers were outnumbered and the group pressed closer.
But the officers, John Burrows and Andrew Hunter, had an advantage largely missing from policing in such cities as Baltimore or Ferguson that have exploded in protest over police brutality: They knew the young man they were arresting. They talk to him regularly, they said. He’s a funny kid, a “goofball” who they have been trying to persuade to stay on the right path.
So while they waited for a squad car to arrive, Burrows talked to the teenager’s friends: “We’re cool; he’s fine,” he said. Then he walked with them down the street, his thumbs hooked under his bulletproof vest, and by the time they got to the corner, they were laughing.
The trick, Hunter said, is simple: Talk to people with respect — avoid yelling, swearing, stomping. Say “Thank you.’’
When they booked the 17-year-old, Burrows said, he asked him the question of the season: “What are you doing this summer? Do you need a job?”
“I can make money,” the teenager answered, according to Burrows.
“I know you can make money,” Burrows replied. “But do you need a job?”
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Burrows and Hunter filled out their paperwork and logged the bag of crack they found in the young man’s pocket, and then headed back out. They cruised side streets, sweeping Zeigler Street, where gunfire was reported early in the day, and canvassing each gang’s territory to look for rivals, a sign of trouble more often than not. As they drove, they rattled off the names, hangouts, allies, and enemies of the gang members they saw on the street.
The 71-member gang unit, formally known as the Youth Violence Strike Force, takes a three-pronged approach to policing, leaders say: prevention, intervention, and enforcement.
Officers play basketball with kids in parks and recruit young people into the city’s Operation Exit program, which began its second year this May, putting court-involved youths to work through building and trade unions and setting them up for lifetime careers. Participants learn to save money and plan for home and car ownership.
But gang unit officers also serve warrants, track gang feuds, patrol “hot spots,” and make arrests, often winding up in physical altercations with armed gang members who try to flee. Gang unit officers have taken 42 firearms off the streets so far this year and made 246 arrests, according to department statistics. When officers wind up chasing armed suspects, officials say, they try to take cover rather than open fire.
“That’s the last thing anyone wants to do: use their firearm,” said Lieutenant Jim Fitzpatrick, commander of the gang unit.
The majority of gang violence in the city is perpetrated by around 400 active gang members, most of them in their teens or 20s, and around 20 to 30 gangs, according to unit leaders.
“There’s bad people that exist, but more often than not, it’s people who had a poor upbringing, poor family structure, socioeconomic issues,” said Sergeant David Gavin, who oversees the gang unit’s day shift, in an interview late last month. “There are, more often than not, chances for people to change their ways, and that’s what our officers look for.”
But officials acknowledge that their relationship with the city’s youth can be complicated.
“We are in charge of reducing violence,” said Deputy Superintendent Gerard Bailey, who oversees the gang unit as well as the bike unit and school police. “We have to go in and do what we have to do, professionally, treating people with respect. But there should be law and order. There has to be law and order.”
Some young people say they feel targeted by gang unit and other police officers — for living in a high-crime neighborhood, for walking down the wrong street, or for being young, black, and male. Police officials acknowledge that, sometimes, people who have done nothing wrong get stopped, but they say officers are trained to courteously explain the stop.
“We just want to make sure we don’t criminalize entire neighborhoods,” said Rufus J. Faulk, program director at the Boston TenPoint Coalition. Faulk works with gang-involved youth and members of the community, but even he has been stopped in his neighborhood. He recalled one night when he went to the site of a shooting on Homestead Street to counsel residents and was pulled over, questioned, and his car searched.
“I’m 33, born and raised in Roxbury. Master’s degree. I’ve done community work,” he said. But, he said, once a suspect’s description goes out, those accomplishments don’t exempt him. “I live on Humboldt Avenue. Depending on what I’m wearing, I can be viewed as somebody who is gang-involved because of what I look like: a black male.”
But Faulk said that gang unit officers are making a genuine effort to be part of the community, and it is paying off. Last month, Faulk gathered a group of neighborhood youths for a basketball game with Boston police and gang unit officers at the William Monroe Trotter Innovation School — just blocks away from where Moynihan was shot. Officers and teenagers ate ice cream and hollered encouragement to teammates from the sidelines, as children on bikes rode circles around the court, occasionally darting between players down the midcourt line.
“They’re doing a good job to try to change that narrative, to let us know there’s a community focus,” said Faulk.
Hunter, a Dorchester native who started in the police cadet program, has worked in Hyde Park, Mattapan, downtown, and Roxbury. Burrows was an EMT and a Navy foreman, serving in Iraq, before he joined the Boston police, and he still carries a tourniquet clipped on his belt.
“This is where you want to be if you want to be a working cop,” said Burrows.
But along with all the action, the job comes with discretion, and that is as important to their mission of getting young people out of gang life as the ability to arrest.
Just before 10 p.m. on their shift, the officers stopped a Heath Street gang member for driving with a broken taillight, missing front plate, and window tinting that was too dark.
The young man was with his girlfriend, driving to his grandmother’s, he said. He had no license, but he presented a work identification card, and his record showed no recent criminal infractions.
He had no weapons, and he was polite and cooperative. To Burrows and Hunter, he looked like a young man trying to get his life together, somebody worth giving the benefit of the doubt.
They told his girlfriend to drive.
“Good lookin’ out, y’all,” the young man said, waving goodbye as he got into the passenger seat. “God bless.”Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @EvanMAllen