Older criminals and layabouts refer to young teens who do their bidding as “crash test dummies.’’ That’s the phrase that Boston detectives heard after two young teenagers — ages 14 and 15 — were arrested in connection with separate murders in October, according to Police Commissioner Edward Davis.
Even by the callous standards of urban slang, the reference to crash dummies goes beyond the pale. It speaks to a willingness to reduce a vulnerable young person to nonhuman status. Even worse, it suggests that the purpose of such dehumanization is to transform a teen into a human weapon to be launched at will.
The Oct. 17 murder in the South End seems to fit the crash-dummy criterion. Raymond Concepcion, 15, has been charged with murder after police say he was identified as the person who fired several shots at a 22-year-old man in a stopped vehicle. Concepcion’s codefendants are ages 19 and 21. Earlier that week, Ernest Watkins IV, 14, was charged with the Oct. 6 stabbing death of a 39-year-old man near the Fields Corner T station. Police say that Watkins was one of several people who confronted the victim shortly after 1 a.m. Given the late hour and the victim’s criminal history — including a murder charge — it’s unlikely that all of the assailants who escaped were barely out of middle school.
In good neighborhoods, it would be odd to see young people in their early teens consorting with older teens or the 20-something crowd. But in dangerous neighborhoods of Boston, especially those with a lot of gang activity, the situation is common. Social scientists call it “cross-cohort socialization.’’ Others call it creepy.
University of Michigan sociologist David Harding documented the phenomenon in his 2010 book “Living the Drama,’’ a study of the conflict and culture of inner city boys in Boston. The author argues that the more violent the neighborhood, the greater the likelihood that young boys will “form intense friendships and interact more frequently with older peers’’ due to the need for protection and the limited opportunities for outside social contact.
Harding found that 75 percent of his interview subjects from the Franklin Park and Roxbury Crossing neighborhoods — areas known for high levels of gang activity — reported older, unrelated males as part of their peer network. Not surprisingly, he also found that young boys who do not have regular contact with their fathers are especially susceptible to the influences of cross-cohort socialization.
Such findings deserve the careful attention of Boston’s public health and community center officials. Everyone can agree on the importance of recruiting responsible adult mentors for organizations such as Big Brothers and Boys Clubs. But what about the flip side? Too few groups are addressing the so-called “original gangsters’’ and older men who, according to Harding, steer the younger ones into gang life.
Emmett Folgert, director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, actively tries to identify and contact older gang members who undermine his center’s anti-violence work.
“We are competing with guys in jails who are advising these kids,’’ said Folgert. “It’s ridiculous.’’
But it’s not entirely fruitless. Occasionally, Folgert and his youth workers successfully convince older gang members to loosen their grip on the younger teens.
Such efforts might be more successful if the Legislature calibrated tough, enhanced penalties for any adult who commits a crime in a joint venture with a juvenile. In Massachusetts, juveniles as young as 14 who are charged with first- or second-degree murder must be tried in adult court. Lawmakers drew this hard line in 1996. The least they could do now is to target adult crime coaches before more juveniles graduate to murder.
City-run community centers should also revisit their policies. One of the suspects in the South End murder, 21-year-old Shakeem Johnson, was a regular at a Roxbury center. Daphne Griffin, Boston’s chief of human services, said staffers at community centers are careful to create age-specific programs to prevent younger teens from possible exposure to the influences of older gang members. But there are periods — especially open gym — when a wide range of ages are present. That’s when supervision needs to be tightened.
The October murders can be viewed as a sudden acceleration. Now the city needs to take greater safety measures or prepare for impact.