Right Now | Cloth and Badge Story
It was yet another funeral for yet another young man killed in yet another drive-by shooting. But this time the violence didn't wait while others mourned. Even before the service ended, gang conflicts erupted into gunshots and a stabbing within the sanctuary of Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, Massachusetts. This flagrant disruption of religious observance impelled the African-American clergy of Boston to act in a way they never had before--as a group. In May 1992, ministers Eugene Rivers '83, Ray Hammond '71, M.D. '75, A.M. '84, and Jeffrey Brown, Dv '90, published a "Ten-Point Proposal for Citywide Mobilization to Combat the Material and Spiritual Sources of Black-on-Black Violence." Within weeks, the Ten-Point Coalition was born.
Now numbering 42 churches, the Ten-Point Coalition has been instrumental in creating what has been billed as the "Boston Miracle"--a 77 percent drop in annual homicides from 1990's record high of 152 to only 35 in 1998. Although several major cities' murder rates have dropped in recent years, Boston's dramatic decline leads the nation. An unusual partnership between the coalition and Boston law enforcement has made a major contribution, according to Jenny Berrien '98 and sociology professor Christopher Winship, Ph.D. '77, who have coauthored four articles on the topic. The ministers, Winship says, are "critical in pushing the police to follow a set of policies that the inner-city community is willing to support and sees as beneficial and helpful." Adds Berrien, "That's the whole idea of the 'umbrella of legitimacy'"--which she and Winship posit as Ten-Point's chief contribution to reducing youth violence.
"In Boston, youth violence has come to be seen as a joint problem," Winship says. "Cops and ministers meet with troublemakers and send a direct message--either stop the gang-banging [gang violence] or we're going to put you in jail." These efforts are built on a few shared assumptions: (1) youth violence must be dealt with as crime, not simply as a symptom of poverty and broken homes; (2) only 1 percent of youths are responsible for the greatest violence, and the ministers will help identify them; (3) some kids need to go to jail, not only for the sake of the community, but for their own sake; (4) the Ten-Point ministers will have a voice in who gets arrested and how they are sentenced; (5) if police act indiscriminately or abusively, they will be held accountable. The ministers, police, and probation officers now "talk off-and-on on a daily basis," says Berrien, adding that such a "stable and standardized level of communication" is rare in law enforcement.
New York City, which has also brought down its crime rates, has taken a different approach, with aggressive "stop and frisk" tactics. But its police department and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani have come under increasing attack for instituting what some have called a "police state." "Community-police relations there are at an all-time low," says Winship. "Is that a politically sustainable approach?"
A decade ago, the Boston police had their own "kick butts and crack heads" policy (as one captain put it) to combat gang violence, before the racially charged Carol Stuart murder case of 1989 prompted a change. Police had accepted husband Charles Stuart's story of a black male assailant (the Stuarts were white), and blanketed the African-American neighborhood of Dorchester, coercing statements in their search for suspects. These rights abuses outraged the African-American community. Ultimately, the investigation suggested that Stuart himself had murdered his pregnant wife.
Such incidents, past and present, lead "inner-city minorities to see the criminal justice system as totally lacking legitimacy," explain Berrien and Winship in an article in the forthcoming Brookings Institution book Managing Youth Violence. Residents, they write, "become increasingly unwilling to cooperate with police or support police activities." Hostile mistrust on both sides of the police-community equation has been a major obstacle in the fight against inner-city crime. In fact, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Boston's black clergy were among the most severe and public critics of police excesses.
How, then, did they become allies? Following the Carol Stuart fiasco, the Boston police department recognized its need for community support and began overhauling its policies. It publicly weeded out "bad-seed" cops, undertook "squeaky-clean" policing, and started experimenting with an innovative multiagency approach to violence prevention. Probation officers, for instance, had deserted the streets out of fear for their safety. Now, "Operation Night Light" enables them to join police officers on patrol to enforce probation restrictions--and consequently, probationers no longer view probation as a meaningless slap on the wrist.
Over time, Boston police have earned greater respect in the inner city. And the program is now rolling out nationally: nine other cities, including Philadelphia, Tulsa, and East Chicago, are putting the coalition's principles into action. Invitations have arrived from overseas, with London, Durban, South Africa, and Kingston, Jamaica, among the cities interested. In collaboration with the Kennedy School's Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations, the coalition is planning a national Ten-Point Training Institute. There have even been discussions with representatives of the World Bank about "the role of faith communities as nongovernmental organizations that can assist in crime prevention," says the Reverend Eugene Rivers.
"Ministers have a unique moral authority," Winship says, "and I think they've been able to hold that moral authority over both the police and the gang members. Second, they bring a religious language and perspective to understanding these problems. They can talk about individual responsibility in a way that avoids the argument between the left and the right." Indeed, both Texas governor George W. Bush Jr. and Vice President Al Gore have endorsed the program. Even more important are the results. For 29 months, not a single funeral was held in Boston for a teenage homicide victim, and during the following 20 months, between January 1998 and August 1999, there were only four--a quadrennial average of less than one a year.