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opinion | Anthony A. Braga and Edward L. Glaeser

‘Stop-and-frisk’ won’t work for Boston

It’s tempting to compare crime rates with New York’s, but that measure can be deceiving

Murders in Boston dropped from 143 in 1990 to 31 in 1999. Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe/file

By anyone’s count, Boston started off 2014 with too many homicides — 16 in the year’s first three months, more than double the number during the same period in 2013. The violence has prompted calls from the community and city officials for Boston police to get tougher on crime, to find a better, firmer approach to stem the bloodshed. But heeding this natural gut response to the homicide spike would be shortsighted.

Those concerned will likely first turn to New York, which has homicide rates that are low and stable — since 2000, Boston has nearly always had more murders per capita. Yet looking only at homicides to measure safety can be deceiving. A deeper review of the past two decades reveals that Boston’s targeted, community-based strategy to policing has yielded less dangerous, more livable streets without resorting to the draconian methods favored by the New York Police Department.

Boston and New York are vastly safer than in the early 1990s. At that decade’s start, both cities experienced crack-related homicide epidemics, with more than 24 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Less than ten years later, that number had fallen dramatically — New York cut homicides from 2,245 in 1990 to 633 in 1998; Boston saw an even bigger proportional drop, from 143 in 1990 to 31 in 1999.


Each city, however, took very different paths to achieve that dramatic decrease. Both employed a variant on the idea of “neighborhood policing,” which was described by William Bratton, who would later lead both cities’ forces, as “a partnership with citizens and all relevant public and private agencies to identify, aggressively attack, and successfully solve problems that are engendering crime, disorder, and fear.” Yet within that definition, Boston chose to emphasize partnership, while New York focused in on the aggressive attack of disorder.

These decisions largely reflect the conditions on the ground at the time. From 1985 to 1993, homicide rates were nearly always, on average, about 50 percent higher in New York than Boston. The Big Apple is vast and more heterogeneous. The crack epidemic emerged just as New York transitioned from Ed Koch, a tough-talking mayor, to David Dinkins, who considered himself a racial healer. At least some voters blamed Dinkins for the drug scourge, and the city turned to Rudy Giuliani, who talked even tougher than Koch and interpreted his mandate as making New York safe at any cost.


The NYPD began hiring swaths of new cops, who were instructed in the “broken windows” approach of cracking down on petty crime in the hopes of preventing larger offenses.

It worked. Arrests soared, taking potential criminals off the streets, and crime dropped. But this strategy came at a cost — it only fueled a long-simmering anger between the NYPD and residents in New York’s less affluent neighborhoods. One Baptist minister went as far as accusing Giuliani of being “a racist who is on the verge of creating a fascist state in New York City.”

Boston’s approach to community policy, on the other hand, reflected the smaller, more tribal nature of our city. In the 1970s, racial hatred seemed like a more pressing problem than crime, and the subsequent election of mayors Ray Flynn and Tom Menino showed residents’ desire to mend the city’s social fabric.

Indeed, an important crime-fighting relationship built during the 1990s was the groundbreaking connection between the Boston Police Department and the African-American clergy who’d come together to form the Ten Point Coalition. Under Bratton’s leadership — and later, commissioners Paul Evans and Ed Davis — the BPD found collaboration with the ministers and, eventually, the two parties were meeting regularly to share information about what was happening on city streets. More recently, that has evolved into BPD officers partnering with local residents to address problems, including gun violence, in hot spots such as the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood. But individuals, not just neighborhoods, could be targeted for interventions.


To be sure, both New York and Boston adopted strategies that put resources toward risky people and risky places, which is vital because, as the data shows, shootings — a more accurate measure of violence than murders; whether a victim dies can depend on factors as variable as pure luck — are usually highly concentrated among a small group of residents and committed at a small number of places. Recent studies done at Harvard demonstrated that only 5 percent of Boston street corners and blocks experienced more than 70 percent of shootings between 1980 and 2008. Indeed, the 2006 and 2013 shootings maps show highly similar concentrations of shootings across Boston’s neighborhoods.

Moreover, according to the Harvard research, roughly 1 percent of Boston youth between the ages of 15 and 24 participated in gangs. Yet these gang dynamics generated more than half of all homicides. Gang members were involved in roughly 70 percent of fatal and non-fatal shootings as either a perpetrator and/or a victim.

New York’s justly famous program Compstat let police use technology and data to see exactly where crime was occurring and where to crack down. BPD also targets risky places, as it does with its Safe Street Teams, but some of its most remarkable work has involved targeting high-risk people, with programs like Operation Ceasefire. In simpler terms, New York’s targeting was a bit more Bloomberg high-tech, whereas Boston’s has been a bit more focused on Menino-like face-to-face interactions.


In Boston, the power of social knowledge showed itself quickly. Consider efforts to end a series of shootings that erupted on Wendover Street in 1994. Partnerships, with probation officers and the violence-prevention group Streetworkers especially, gave cops the ability to target gang members, punishing them — and just them — for minor offenses. The message was clear: We’re here because of the shooting, and until it stops, nobody is going to so much as jaywalk, nor make any money, nor have any fun.

Such highly targeted community interventions were replicated and expanded to great success. Importantly, these law enforcement efforts were balanced by offers of social services and job opportunities to gang youth made available through a well-coordinated network of community-based organizations and social service agencies.

Homicide rates in smaller cities are always more volatile. Also, gang violence is cyclical and especially so under the community approach Boston has taken. But the good news is that, since 1994, BPD has always managed to bring homicides back down.

Why? Because Boston’s experience also tells us that these homicide epidemics are offset by other, broader benefits. Boston has both fewer police and fewer arrests per capita than New York. Its police force has also avoided controversial procedures like New York’s stop-and-frisk program, which angered communities and a federal judge ruled in 2013 to be unconstitutional. The BPD’s social skills were also on display in its more peaceful and effective handling of the Occupy movement, and, more recently, when parts of the Marathon bombing investigation were crowdsourced.


And, until the last few months, serious violent crime was down in Boston — by 30 percent between 2006 and 2012. Equally impressive, total arrests decreased by 33 percent during the same period.

The recent upswing in violence, however, can’t be ignored. Crime has not traveled far in Boston — the neighborhoods such as Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan that were prone to violence 20 years ago remain the same today. The police alone can’t banish violence from these neighborhoods. Mayor Walsh must fight hard to improve education and economic opportunities in these places. Study after study has demonstrated that violent crime does decrease with economic success. Young people, only miles from one of the country’s leading tech hubs, need to hear the case that selling software is more lucrative in the long run than selling drugs.

Moreover, Boston’s broader “network of capacity” that prevents serious violence may not be as well connected and coordinated as it was in the 1990s. Many of the social service and community-based partnerships that worked so well are neither as well funded nor as focused as they were in the past. The city was safest when law enforcement, social services, and community-based groups responded together to the small number of people and small number of places that generate most of the violence. To this end, Walsh has taken a step in the right direction by appointing Suffolk County prosecutor Daniel Mulhern and former probation officer Leon Graves to coordinate and focus these non-law enforcement partners.

We won’t judge the appropriateness of New York’s methods for New York — it is a hard place to keep safe. On policing, however, Boston has shown itself to be far more innovative for years by working within the community to listen to its concerns and to build mutual trust. Now is the time for the community to return that trust.

Edward L. Glaeser, a Harvard economist, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston. Anthony A. Braga is a criminology professor at Rutgers University and a senior research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Braga previously served as chief policy advisor to Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis between 2007 and 2013.