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by Lora E. Como On November 9, 1989, Casmiro Dos Santos was working in his own store on Bowdoin Street in the business district of Boston’s Dorchester when he was robbed, shot multiple times, and killed. Police suspected gang activity in the already tough neighborhood was responsible, but the ensuing investigation came up empty. Meanwhile, the savageness of the 62-year-old’s murder resonated through the community and business in the area dropped off. People were genuinely shaken by Dos Santos’ murder, and worse yet, the murder was a harbinger of things to come. The murder occurred on the eve of one of Boston’s most violent years when the city’s crime fighters would find themselves embroiled with the infestation of gangs, crack, and the horrible consequences of when those two unite. By March 11, 1990, 52 victims of murder had already passed through Boston morgues with 100 more yet to come, many of them gang-related slayings. And in 1992, in what is now known as the Morning Star incident, a funeral service for a dead gang member erupted in even more gang violence at the Mattapan Baptist church. But as of March 17, 1999, the Boston police have only had to dispatch squad cars to four homicide scenes and none of those murders have involved juvenile gang members. And, ten years later, they’ve solved Casmiro Dos Santos’ murder. The dent that the city has put in the gang-related crime epidemic that first began to plague the city at the turn of the last decade has not been the product of a few Eliot Ness types throwing around the full weight of the law amid the din of gunfire; rather the significant drop in crime, especially in youth crime, has been the product of an unprecedented coordination of city-wide resources into a synchronized, multi-dimensional plan of attack called the Boston Strategy that involves law enforcement partnerships, community cooperation, social services participation, and the trust of all those involved. In 1997, U.S. Attorney Donald Stern told the Boston Globe, “In the old days, there was a lot of mistrust and distrust. Probation officers wouldn’t go out of their offices, the police mostly responded to 911 calls, prosecutors just looked at what came in the door to decide what to act on, and the feds had their heads in the clouds and didn’t know what was happening on the streets. And the community may have viewed the police as an intrusive force.” Boston, and much of the nation’s crime fighters, were illprepared to deal with structured youth gangs who trafficked in violence and crack cocaine, and their efforts amounted to no more than clumsy knee-jerk reactions. The dawn of the Boston Strategy came just as the city’s schools threw open their doors in the late summer of 1995, and a possible drug war was brewing between the notoriously violent Intervale posse of Dorchester and another rival gang. 22 gang members from the Intervale posse were arrested on the first day of school, 15 of them on federal conspiracy charges to distribute crack cocaine and 7 on state charges. What distinguishes the bust from others of its kind is the coordinated effort of top officials, the involvement of the federal authorities, and the refusal of the city to stop and rest on its laurels. The bust had been extensively pre-planned, and the police department’s Youth Violence Strike Force had even forewarned gang members of the impending bust. The caveat went unheeded, as
expected, and officials from high up in the law enforcement echelons, such as the federal US attorney, the state’s Attorney General, and the county’s District Attorney, all of whom have historically operated autonomously, banded together and enlisted the help of the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the State Police, and various police and municipal agencies. And together they wiped out the Intervale posse. But the coordination of law enforcement agencies is only one dimension in the Boston equation. The enlistment of the community has been a crucial step in forging a bond of trust between the cops and the communities they work in, a “trust that did not exist ten years ago,” according to Boston police Sergeant Paul Joyce, formerly of the Youth Violence Strike Force and now a detective in the homicide division. After the Intervale bust, the city sent the National Guard to Dorchester to bulldoze the vacant lot formerly occupied by the Intervale gang. The city’s Inspectional Services then moved in to board up abandoned houses, fence in vacant lots, raze buildings, erase graffiti, and eliminate as many cosmetic stigmas of poverty and gang culture from the neighborhood as possible. Forty-seven Boston area churches then united themselves under the moniker of the Ten Point Coalition and street workers were deployed to attract youth away from the gang life by offering them alternatives in the very viable forms of jobs and after-school programs. And probably the most innovative and effective program of the Boston strategy has been Operation Night Light in which probation officers have transformed themselves from court-based bureaucrats to a formidable presence, not only on the street, but in the homes of probationers where they can pop up and enter without notice or warrant. The product of the partnerships and coalitions that form the Boston Strategy are only a few years old, yet the city’s homicide tally last year was at a 30-year low of 59 murders. And if 1999’s murder rate stays the same, the city will only suffer 16 homicides for the year, and none of them will be gang-related. All of which must mean that homicide is an awful slow place to work these days. Not true, says Sergeant Joyce. While the telephones at dispatch may be quieter, homicide is still quite busy with the business of solving murders. “We’re going back and identifying unsolved gang homicides that started in 1988,” Sergeant Joyce said, which total about 300 homicides mostly from the areas of Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. And since, as Detective Joyce says, “information is everything in homicide,” detectives have assembled a tome called the Homicide Reference Guide that is a compilation of all unsolved gang-related murders. The guide contains general public information on the circumstances surrounding each murder, including information about the victims and maps of the different neighborhoods, and has not only been distributed to law enforcement agencies but to the community as well. And in keeping with the element of trust between the law and the community spawned by the Boston Strategy, the Homicide Reference Guide has received the full support of the community coalitions who act as liaisons for people too afraid to divulge information directly to the police. Add to that equation a brand new state-of-the-art DNA testing laboratory and the result is 13 solved murders, including the arrest of two suspects in the on-going investigation of Casmiro Dos Santos’ slaying. “Everyone’s moving in the same direction, and when you pool your efforts, you can make a significant impact on a neighborhood. We’re trying to show that we’re not resting on our wave of success, and we’re committed to taking care of what happened in the past,”
Sergeant Joyce said. “We can go to the Bowdoin St. community now and say ‘we’ve made an arrest. We haven’t forgotten about the past.’”