Some 30 years ago, Mike Hennessey made a gaffe. A gaffe is when you are in public life and tell the truth.
Mike Hennessey was a Boston school cop, the best, and he knew the kids and the kids knew him and he wrote a very long, detailed memo about gangs in the city’s schools. It didn’t go over well with the powers that be.
“They punished him,” Bill Stewart, the legendary Dorchester District Court probation officer recalled. “They transferred him to East Boston. So every day, Mike had to drive from Hyde Park to East Boston to go to work.”
But as his encyclopedic knowledge about gangs became known, Mike Hennessey found some unlikely allies: a coalition of Black ministers who were determined to reduce violence in their communities.
The Rev. Jeffrey Brown remembers meeting Hennessey all those years ago. A Black preacher and a white cop. They started talking, looking not so much for the promised land but just some common ground. The more they talked, they found it: They were both tired of comforting mothers whose sons had been murdered, tired of people acting like there was some acceptable level of violence in poor, mostly Black neighborhoods.
“Mike was one of the first police officers I met who challenged the status quo,” Brown said. "Those of us who stood behind him and beside him said, ‘We’ll do this as a team.' "
This was revolutionary stuff back in the day.
“We just hit it off,” Brown said. “Mike would bring me to the schools, tell me to look for things, like a cop would."
But it went both ways. Hennessey believed you couldn’t just lock up a problem. It had to be more.
“Mike always had respect for what I was doing, what other ministers were doing,” Brown said.
Everybody bought in. Preachers, probation officers, cops. The ministers weren’t just praying for kids. They were praying for Boston Police Lieutenant Gary French, head of the gang unit. Even though nobody was supposed to call it that. It was the Youth Violence Strike Force.
Whatever they called it, it worked.
Within a decade, youth violence in Boston had dropped nearly 80 percent. While other cities saw their homicide rates rise, Boston’s dropped, dramatically. They called it the Boston Miracle.
Like most men of the cloth, the Rev. Brown chafes at that word, preferring to leave the miracles to the Lord. It was more about hard work and determination and a kind of compassion shown by the people who did the interventions with families.
Larry Mayes, who was the city’s chief of human services under Mayor Tom Menino, said Hennessey helped him and others understand that gangs were in effect cults. He said parents responded to that explanation, and became an important part of reducing violence.
Emmett Folgert, who runs the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, said Hennessey was able to quietly end fighting among Asian gangs in Dorchester, too.
“Mike saved a lot of kids,” he said.
Which is why it’s so hard for Hennessey’s friends right now, because he’s on the 16th floor of Brigham and Women’s, fighting terminal cancer.
His son, Mike Jr., surprised no one by telling me his dad was fighting with everything he’s got. They almost lost him Friday. But he punched back.
“When I was a kid,” Mike Jr. said, “I looked at him like the Elliot Ness of gang busting. But I remember he always talked about giving kids second chances, that when he knew their life situations weren’t the best, he wanted to give them a chance.”
The Rev. Brown remembers there was a kid, violating his probation, hanging out at Franklin Field. Rather than lock the kid up, Hennessey asked the preachers to go talk to the kid, to see what was going on in his life.
Larry Mayes smiles thinking about his buddy.
“Mike is," he said, "Robert Redford with a halo.”
Mike Hennessey would love that.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.