BPD searches unwarranted

by Beacon Staff • December 5, 2007

There were 75 shooting homicides in Boston in 2005-the most in a decade. And the violence has become a trend: 74 people were slain last year, and so far this year, 63 have been killed.

The statistics are punctuated by stories that transcend the litany of desensitizing headlines: "[Insert number] teens killed in [Roxbury or Dorchester] shooting.,Boston is amidst a major, long-term gun control crisis.

There were 75 shooting homicides in Boston in 2005-the most in a decade. And the violence has become a trend: 74 people were slain last year, and so far this year, 63 have been killed.

The statistics are punctuated by stories that transcend the litany of desensitizing headlines: "[Insert number] teens killed in [Roxbury or Dorchester] shooting."

This summer eight-year-old Liquarry Jefferson was shot and killed by his 7-year-old cousin. In October, a 17-year-old was gunned down in Dorchester as he left the funeral of a friend who was also a shooting victim.

Eager to appear efficacious, the Boston Police Department made headlines when it announced the Safe Homes initiative last month. Commissioner Ed Davis is touting the new project as an innovative way of curbing gun violence in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods.

Instead, Safe Homes and the consent-to-search policy it employs are retreads of an already-failed program that clearly violates one of the Constitution's most specific and, until now, most inalienable tenets: no warrant, no search.

When the Safe Homes program is implemented later this month, plainclothes officers, accompanied by a civic or religious representative, will approach houses where they suspect a teenager is holding illegal weapons and ask the owner for permission to search the home. The reasoning is that they have not gathered enough evidence to obtain a search warrant from a judge.

Police insist that granting consent to such a search will be voluntary, and that the civilian presence is designed to protect against coercion, intimidation and harassment.

Any illegal weapons will be confiscated but not used as evidence unless the suspect is later linked to an unsolved shooting.

Already, Safe Homes has elicited legitimate protest from criminologists, who worry the BPD is "making an end run around the Constitution." Veteran city councilors like Chuck Turner, who represents Roxbury and part of Dorchester, have also voiced opposition. He and at-large councilor Felix Arroyo have called for hearings to scrutinize the integrity of police procedure in Safe Homes.

The BPD has responded with measured skepticism.

If the community trusts the police, they say, the strategy can work. They refer back to the St. Louis program upon which Safe Homes is based, claiming it was a success because officers were welcomed into 98 percent of the homes approached in the program's first year.

But the ratio of signed consent forms is a skewed barometer of the program's success. It is the specter of police intimidation and coercion that makes Safe Homes so unpalatable. Citing near-unanimous acquiescence to the police is no way to assuage those concerns.

The flawed statistic still doesn't withstand serious scrutiny. After a year, St. Louis residents lost faith in the program as well as in police, according to a 2004 Justice Department evaluation. They began rejecting half of police officers' attempts to obtain search consent, and gun seizures plummeted.

The BPD says Safe Homes is meant to remove guns from the hands of youths, not incarcerate them. But there are gaping holes in this argument.

If Safe Homes officers find drugs while searching a home, they will use their discretion to decide whether to arrest the teenager based on how much and what kind of drugs they find, BPD spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll told The Boston Globe.

Modest amounts of pot will simply be confiscated, but "a kilo of cocaine would not be considered modest," Driscoll said. An immodest amount of drugs could then lead to arrest and prosecution.

Police officers are charged with enforcing the law, not interpreting what constitutes "a modest amount of drugs." That's the job of the courts, where a term so absurd would not likely withstand legal scrutiny.

This kind of unrestricted police intrusion into private property is exactly what the Fourth Amendment was meant to curb.

Perhaps the weakest claim the BPD has made in defense of Safe Homes is that consent-to-search policies are effective enough to justify the tax dollars used to pay for them.

If history is any indicator, Safe Homes is bound to fail. It took St. Louis three tries, each with variations on the strategy, to end things for good in 1998. There is no reason to believe Boston will be a better petri dish for this experiment; the flaws that sank St. Louis' program are inherent, and will likely sink this one.

First, St. Louis police did not consider confiscating weapons "real police work," according to the Justice Department's report.

The lieutenant who oversaw its second St. Louis iteration delivered the prevailing opinion: "Why only get a gun with a consent search," he told the Department of Justice, "when you can get a gun and a criminal with an arrest or a search warrant?"

But Boston met success in the 1996 when the BPD launched the now-defuct "Operation Ceasefire." The program, designed by criminologists at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, involved communication with gang members. Police let it be known that when one stepped out of line, all would be punished.

The city had averaged 44 youth homicides per year between 1991 and 1995, but Ceasefire helped reduce that number to 27 in 1996 and then to its low ebb of 15 in 1997.

The BPD's biggest mistake was allowing support for Ceasefire to peter out for budget reasons in 2000.

The city should reinvest in Ceasefire and muzzle Safe Homes, before it ends up shooting itself in the foot.