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Treating gang violence as mental illness

DURING A RECENT briefing for Mayor Walsh on a spate of murders in January, top Boston Police officials provided the mayor with a list of 27 so-called “impact players’’ — mostly gang members who drive much of the violence in Boston. The mayor got right to the point during a subsequent interview with Globe columnist Adrian Walker.

“Their future should be worrying about getting a job and going to school,’’ said Walsh. “That’s 27 people. You look and say, ‘What’s in their heads?’ ’’

Excellent question. What exactly is the mental process that drives young men to kill and maim on the streets of Boston scores of times each year? Last month alone, police reported nine homicides, which they attributed in significant measure to retaliatory gang shootings. It was the most deadly January in at least six years, and hardly the welcome Walsh had hoped for as he settled into his first few weeks on the job.

For about a century, social scientists and criminologists have been analyzing data and conducting interviews aimed at understanding the motivations of violent street gang members. They’ve come at it from nearly every sociological and psychological perspective. Some researchers see gangs as a logical extension of efforts to control illegal street commerce. Others attribute the violence to distorted expressions of masculinity in poor neighborhoods, stressful families, poor education, or failed transitions from childhood to adulthood among the 14- to 18-year-old-set. But Walsh’s question still hangs unanswered over the city.


One intriguing theory about what goes on inside the heads of the most violent gang members comes from urban anthropologist James Diego Vigil at the University of California, Irvine. He sees many gang members as living in a state of “quasi-controlled insanity’’ that manifests itself in fearlessness and bursts of destructive behavior. Spanish-speaking gang members in California, said Vigil, coined the term “locura’’ (from loco, crazy) to describe this mental state. But it can be applied to gang members across the board.


Vigil explained that many gang members put on a crazy act as a means of survival. But others have descended into a state of actual craziness. Their “sense of worthlessness” becomes so great, writes Vigil, that it leads them “to question why anyone else should be worth anything.’’

Not the type of guys you’d want to meet on a street corner.

Vigil’s theory challenges the widely held belief among police and gang experts in Boston that even the worst gang members will act rationally if given the opportunity. Boston is known for pioneering a strategy in the mid-1990s that featured teams of law enforcement officers and ministers sitting down with gang members and presenting them with two options: Accept help with job training and education or prepare for police scrutiny so intense it could lead only to lengthy prison sentences. It worked so brilliantly back then that Boston didn’t record a single youth homicide during a 29-month period ending in January 1998. Since then, however, the strategy has met with limited success.

Roy Martin of the Boston Public Health Commission works mainly with lists of “impact players’’ provided by police. He steers them into social services, jobs, schools, or anywhere that will help them break the bonds of gangs. The 44-year-old Martin, who served time in prison for a gang-related shooting, believes that inadequate socialization, not mental illness, drives the violence.


“They [violent gang members] turn right back into kids after you spend time with them,’’ said Martin. “They get rid of that mad dog look.’’

Walsh, like the rest of the city, needs to struggle with this issue. Should the city’s efforts continue to focus on current intervention strategies that assume that gang members will turn away from violence if given rational alternatives? Or are the “impact players’’ crazy to the point that it is better to concentrate on ways to cross their blood-brain barriers with effective medications before they cross our paths?

Boston’s violence reduction strategy needs an additional lever: Push “impact players’’ to accept psychiatric screening and related treatment or prepare for relentless scrutiny by law enforcement. To this point, a recent Queen Mary University of London study found exceptionally high levels of psychiatric illnesses — including psychosis — among gang members in Britain.

Meanwhile, Walsh could tuck the list of 27 “impact players’’ into his top draw for a year and then compare how many are dead, maimed, or in prison with the number who have found their way onto a productive track. It might say a lot about what went on inside their heads.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com