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Boston's crime hysteria

"THE SKY IS falling!" announced Chicken Little hysterically, "I have to go tell the king." Along the way, she convinced Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, Turkey Lurkey, and her other frightened friends that their lives were in imminent danger.


Well it surely seems that Chicken Little is alive and well, busily spinning headlines for the Boston press corps. As this year's homicide toll reached nine and then 10, the print and electronic media were turning out stories about a sudden and chilling crime wave hitting the Hub.

As if 10 fatalities over the first seven weeks of the year weren't bad enough, an ominous comparison to last year's figure of just three homicides sent shockwaves through the airwaves. Virtually every local news outlet cast their reports in epidemic terms. Had the bloodshed of the early '90s returned with a vengeance?

Apparently, the "king" (better known as Boston Mayor Thomas Menino) heard Chicken Little's frantic call. "We're frustrated. We're angry," affirmed Mayor Menino. "We're not going to allow anybody to take over our streets."

If anybody or anything is taking over the streets, it is not the hoodlums of Menino's worst nightmare, but panic and hysteria prompted by some outrageous interpretations of local crime statistics. A financial adviser would certainly not give much weight to the short-term performance of a mutual fund, but would soberly look at long-term averages. By contrast, crime analyses are far too often myopic in scope and therefore terribly misleading.

The 10 killings thus far in 2004 are all tragic, to be sure, but in no way do they constitute a crime wave. It is not that this year's murder tally is out of line, but that last year's figure of three was so remarkably low, the lowest in over two decades. It is not that this year has been so bad, but that last year was so extraordinarily good.

Using the long-term experience as a more reliable benchmark, this year's early homicide count is only slightly and not significantly greater than the one-per-week average that the City of Boston has experienced over the past decade. There may have been 10 victims so far in 2004, but in a broader sense of public mood, Boston is a collective victim of its own past success.

I do not mean to minimize or disregard the tragic events of the last few weeks. To the contrary, I have gone on record repeatedly with concerns about the near and distant future. Just as gangs have made a comeback in other parts of the country, particularly on the West Coast, the potential for renewed turf warfare exists here as well. Today's wannabe gang affiliates are attracted to the excitement and status that gang membership can provide, yet they are too young to have witnessed its violent downside.

Furthermore, with many gang leaders due to be released from their terms of incarceration imposed a decade ago, their old gangs will likely be strengthened. Regrettably, this worrisome possibility comes at a time when the criminal justice system and various prevention initiatives have been drastically drained of resources.

The violent start of 2004 could indeed be a harbinger of worse carnage to come, but it is more likely a statistical aberration. Still, we would be wise to reinvest in the prevention and enforcement strategies that proved so successful a decade ago, before we became a little too complacent about the crime problem.

At the end of her journey, Chicken Little met up with Foxy Loxy, who knew better than to get carried away. As far as this Foxy Loxy is concerned, we should remain calm in the wake of tragedy yet aggressively restore the funding levels that once made the Boston Police Department and local youth-serving agencies and programs a model for the nation.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.

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