Let's lighten crime load
By James Alan Fox
Monday, January 2, 2006

Perhaps it is because of my lifelong personal obsession with counting calories combined with my professional obsession with counting crimes that I often relate crime fighting to dieting. In this mode of thinking, I wonder if Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole has, on behalf of the city, made a New Year's resolution to shed a few crimes in 2006.

The past two years have not been kind to Boston's top cop in terms of the murder rate. In 2004, O'Toole's first year in charge, Boston recorded 60 homicides, up from a lean 38 the year before. And, of course, 2005 ended with the murder scale tipping at 75, a 25 percent rate gain over the previous year.

To some extent, O'Toole is a victim of her predecessor's resounding success. Former Commissioner Paul Evans, the Jenny Craig of law enforcement, was widely regarded as a miracle worker in orchestrating the so-called Boston Miracle wherein not one youngster was murdered by gunfire over a 26-month time span - a hard act to follow indeed. Talk about slim; Boston's murder tally of 31 back in the year 1999 was virtually anorexic.

What made the Boston crime drop over the course of the 1990s appear so extraordinary and miraculous was its stunning contrast to the swollen figure from which it started: the heavy toll of 152 killings that occurred in 1990 during former Commissioner Mickey Roache's watch. Quite a before-and-after picture!

To be fair to O'Toole, the success that had brought Boston attention from law enforcement officials around the globe (the round one with many continents, not the flat one with many sections) and brought Evans a one-way ticket to Scotland Yard was almost impossible to maintain. Like with any crash diet, there is bound to be a bit of bounce back once you relax a bit. But, Boston, we may have relaxed a bit too much.

As the 1990s generation of youngsters, who were positively impacted by the many programs and strategies implemented during Evans' tenure, have matured out of their most violence-prone years, they have been replaced by a new and larger cohort of youth, unaffected by the efforts of the past. This newest crop of at-risk teens and post-adolescents is too young to have witnessed the days when joining a gang could mean arrest and incarceration, if not an early grave. Crime control, like weight control, is a never-ending battle.

So it is time to go back on that 1990s crime diet, while the rate of violence, though inflated, is not out of control. What made the 1990s crime initiative so remarkable was balance - a balanced diet of tough enforcement, concerned intervention and early prevention.

Boston is not alone in experiencing an upward spike in violence. Murders are up in Houston, Philadelphia, Kansas City and elsewhere. But that is of no consolation to the families who grieve for those slain in Boston over the past year.

In the wake of last month's massacre in Dorchester that claimed the lives of four young men, the Rev. Bruce Wall of the Global Ministries Christian Church called for renewed action. "We have to start all over again," said Wall. "We need a new miracle."

I, for one, do not believe in miracles - miracle diets or miracle crime solutions. Similarly, quick fixes are foolish and ineffective as weight control or crime control. Successful crime fighting is not so much the result of miracles as it is of hard work and dogged determination.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.