Think back, for a moment, to Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother caught on video last month, pulling her son back from a riot. Some questioned her methods, but her cause resonated with the nation — a voice from within a troubled community, trying to stop someone she loved from becoming part of the problem.
Now imagine a group of women, empathetic and sometimes fierce, becoming a kind of quiet crimefighting force. Imagine that they’re a key to improving not just safety on the streets, but relations between the community and police.
And realize that, in Boston, this is happening now.
It is called Operation L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K., for “Ladies Involved in Putting a Stop to Inner-City Killings.” It’s a grass-roots program on a shoestring that targets a narrow problem: the trafficking and harboring of illegal guns by girlfriends, sisters, mothers, grandmothers.
And it’s run by women from the city’s most troubled neighborhoods, many of whom have lost loved ones to gun violence. I spoke to several of them this month: Kim Odom, a pastor and public health worker; Paulette Parham, a member of Odom’s church; Ruth Rollins, an advocate for domestic violence victims.
After her 21-year-old son was killed in 2007, Rollins told me, “I went through a severe depression, but I wanted to be part of the solution.” Then she met Nancy Robinson, whose nonprofit group, Citizens for Safety, was running an informational campaign about gun trafficking.
That program morphed into L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K., which is now run by a group of women who call themselves “L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. Ladies.” They hold meetings around the community, anchored by monthly workshops at the Grove Hall Library. There, amid personal stories and tears, they share information: what it means to be a straw buyer, how a sting operation works. They draw a connection between the pipeline of illegal guns and the violence on the streets. And they ask women to sign a pledge: not to buy, hide, or hold guns for someone else.
Law enforcement specialists have long known that straw purchasing was a major component of urban violence, said David Kennedy, a criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an architect of Operation Ceasefire, Boston’s 20-year-old gun violence prevention program. Police have tried educating gun dealers, running inspections and stings.
“But this approach that L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. is taking is a completely different avenue,” Kennedy told me. “Nobody’s doing what they’re doing.”
And the combination of grass-roots support and a narrow purpose, he said, turns out to be especially effective. “When people try to do the big things — ‘let’s fix the neighborhood’ — nobody can pull that off,” he said. “But when you say, ‘Here’s this very specific thing, and we’re going to fix it,’ ” the effects can be measurable.
In Boston, they are. In April, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, whose office has given L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. a $5,000 grant, credited the group with a one-third drop in gun crimes by female defendants between 2011 and 2013.
L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. has also had ripple effects, including new connections among the community and the police. Some L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. Ladies have stories about bad encounters in the past. Odom bristles at how some officers reacted when her 13-year-old son was hit by a stray bullet in 2007: assuming he was in a gang, referring to his killer as an “animal.”
“I understand that that kid belongs to somebody,” she told me. “He’s somebody’s child too.”
But L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. also provides counterexamples, cops who work to understand. A handful of Boston Police Department officers have attended the meetings, in plainclothes. Their presence is announced, but participants are told, as Parham says, that “there’s no judgment in this room.” Relationships forged, one officer told me, spill out into the street. And the ladies find themselves defending officers from blanket denigration.
There is more to be done within L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K.’s narrow mission. The group is launching a program for teenaged girls. Rollins said the city needs more safehouses for women who want to extricate themselves from dangerous situations. The women say more officers need to come to L.I.P.S.T.I.C.K. meetings.
But they also know that much of the work is being done, to great effect, by themselves.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misstated Paulette Parham’s role in Kim Odom’s church. Parham is a member.