Despite drop in crime, some neighborhoods still feel besieged
In the South End, 52-year-old John Chambers is as comfortable walking through Villa Victoria, a housing project once plagued by gang violence, as he is at Flour, a neighborhood bakery serving brioche au chocolat and croissants.
On a spring morning near Jamaica Pond, where certain streets were once forbidding, 41-year-old realtor Holly Edes strolled with Zoe, an ornery terrier mix rescue dog whose temper seemed to be the only threat to passing joggers and bikers.
Crime in Boston is at a two-decade low. Not since the days of the Boston Miracle, an effort focused on youth that significantly lowered the crime rate in the late 1990s, has the city had so few killings.
But it doesn’t always feel that way in places where violent crimes remain a looming presence: sections of Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan. Since Sunday, a spate of shootings and stabbings in those neighborhoods has left at least five people injured and two dead.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Police Commissioner William B. Evans, adding that even the most violent neighborhoods are more peaceful than they were a decade ago.
According to police statistics, serious crimes such as murder, rape, and assaults have fallen in those areas between 10 and 22 percent since 2014.
But one shocking incident, like the shooting of a 6-year-old boy in Dudley Square this spring, can undercut a sense of progress. With rare exceptions, though, shootings and assaults are concentrated in small areas in those neighborhoods, pockets of poverty and drug violence that, although just miles from downtown Boston, can seem a world away — except to those who live there.
In one such crime cluster, along Blue Hill Avenue in Mattapan, a man in his 30s was shot and killed on June 26, just two weeks after two men were gunned down on consecutive days in the neighborhood, less than a mile apart. One victim was fatally shot while sitting on a stoop; another was near his parked car.
On June 25 in Jamaica Plain, an 8-year-old girl was struck in the shoulder by a bullet meant for someone else. Now she’s terrified to go outside, her mother said. Four days later, two people were shot and injured on Geneva Avenue.
The Fourth of July weekend ushered in another series of violent crimes. On Sunday night in Roxbury, four people were shot, including three men at a cookout on Zeigler Street. And on Monday, three people were wounded in a late-night shooting in the South End.
The violence continued on Wednesday afternoon, with a man fatally stabbed in Dorchester, and early Thursday, when a man was left with life-threatening injuries after a shooting, also in Dorchester. Hours later, an 18-year-old was fatally stabbed on Warren Street in Roxbury and then another person was killed in Dorchester.
As of Thursday night, there were 23 homicides for the year in Boston.
Overall, there were 46 killings last year, compared to 152 in 1990, the peak of gang-related violence.
“Crime continues to go down, but I don’t know if we’ll ever get to the point when we don’t have incidents,” Evans said. “One incident will make it feel unsafe.”
“Perceptions are reality,” he added.
Police officials and crime analysts credit an affluent, well-educated population and a strong community policing philosophy for the gains Boston has made in recent years, especially compared with other cities its size.
In 2015, Boston had 706 violent crimes per 100,000 people, much lower than cities with comparable populations, according to police statistics reported to the FBI.
Memphis, by contrast, had 1,740 per 100,000 people, while Baltimore had 1,535, according to the FBI crime database.
The persistent crime in some of Boston’s neighborhoods appears to correlate with a host of socio-economic factors. In Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, where poverty remains entrenched in some sections, the unemployment rate has historically been higher than in the rest of the city.
The comparative lack of job opportunities can fuel a sense of despair among some young people, community activists say.
“It’s all connected,” said Rufus Faulk, program director for the Boston TenPoint Coalition, an anti-violence group. “The crime we see is a larger symptom of income inequality in Boston and an opportunity gap. The byproduct is violence.”
Distrust of the police also remains a persistent problem, community activists say. Residents, especially young men, often refuse to cooperate with officers who are investigating killings and shootings, either wary of the police or concerned about potential reprisals. Some neighborhood leaders say the department has fed this mistrust by resisting outside investigations into police misconduct.
Strategies for policing these neighborhoods have evolved over the years, analysts say. Strong displays of force in high-crime areas have given way to a more proactive approach. For example, officers work more closely with clergy, school officials, and immigrant advocates to build relationships with city residents who are often hesitant to help police solve crimes.
Under Evans, police have added social workers to some districts and in patrol cars to help address issues such as domestic violence, drug use, and mental illness.
Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy, a police spokesman, said the department focuses its resources on Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury. He said initiatives such as Operation Homefront have helped keep at-risk youth out of the criminal justice system by pairing officers with clergy to provide counseling to troubled children and teens and their families. The department also works with other agencies to help expose young people to alternatives to gang life.
“The BPD has many initiatives and programs to address and reduce crime,” McCarthy said. “However, crime reduction and solving crimes is not solely the responsibility of the Police Department.”
McCarthy said the department also needs the public’s help.
Experts agree that police can exert only so much control over the city’s crime rate, said Shea Cronin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Boston University.
“I think [police] can always continue to expand on the things that they’re doing to try to prevent crime, but a certain level of crime is a fact of life in most places,” Cronin said.
Catherine White, who has lived in the Bromley-Heath housing development in Jamaica Plain for 12 years, said she has enjoyed living there, and a new children’s park near the Jackson Square train station and a new Whole Foods in Hyde Square show that her neighborhood can improve.
Within her apartment complex, crime has dropped, but not enough, she said.
“In the last year there was an overdose in the building, a stabbing of a tow truck driver, and random shootings all the time,” said White, 51. “The kids don’t feel safe coming to and from school. My adult daughters are scared to visit.”
Many share White’s unease. And those who have been victims of the most violent types of crime dismiss statistics that show a more peaceful city. Not the city they live in, they say.
“Boston is not safe,” said Lawanda Settles, who lives on Annunciation Road in Mission Hill.
Two years ago, her 17-year-old son, D’Andre, was shot to death just a few feet from their apartment, which is directly behind Boston Police Headquarters.
“I want out of here so bad,” Settles said from her doorway. A poster with her slain son’s photos rested against the wall near the door. “It’s too much. Every day someone is losing a child or a child has gotten hurt by knife or gun,” she said.
On Annunciation Road, a six-block stretch of public housing apartments, residents are skeptical that crime rates have fallen.
“It’s been going on for so long we’re used to it,” said Krissa Williams, whose 63-year-old mother was shot in the stomach six years ago as she sat on a bench near her home. “But that does not mean that we want it.”