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A tale of two cities

Boston, New York, and crime

Competition between cities can be healthy, so long as it focuses each city on its own competitive advantages.

Consider the fight against crime in Boston and New York. Ten years ago, the two cities were showplaces for the nation. New York City was leading the country in crime reduction, with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani crediting his relentless style of policing for the double-digit declines year after year. Boston was also achieving dramatic reductions in violent crime through a web of partnerships among federal, state, county, and city law enforcement agencies on the one hand, and between the police and community activists on the other. For each city emulating New York's strategies, another was replicating Boston's.

Today, the world continues to marvel at the crime reductions in New York City. Despite changes of mayor and police commissioner, cuts in the number of police, and the added burdens of antiterrorism operations, violent crime in New York declined again in 2005. Boston, however, saw increases in all four violent ''index" crimes: homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.

Some have argued that it's time for Boston to adopt New York's tactics. To do so, however, would be to lose sight of Boston's own particular strengths. We can understand those strengths by looking at current trends and at weaknesses that were hidden in the success of the '90s. On both points, the contrast with New York City is instructive.

What made the competition on crime fighting world famous in the 1990s was that Boston and New York had fundamentally different visions of how to drive crime down. Where New York's police commissioners set out to prove that policing alone could make the streets safe, Boston was proving that close partnerships among government agencies and community residents could do just as well.

Many people worried that New York paid a very high price for its crime reductions. The aggressive use of stop and frisk tactics by the Street Crimes Unit and thousands of new arrests for petty crimes were widening the gulf between police and minority communities and weakening the protections of the justice system. Few of the stops resulted in any formal charges, and few of the petty arrests were fully reviewed in court.

In contrast, Boston's partnerships offered an alternative to New York's police-centered strategy. Prosecutors, police, probation officers, teachers, street workers, community organizers, and clergy from previously isolated government departments and neighborhoods built working partnerships that went far beyond consultation. Across these lines, professionals and community residents worked together on a daily basis, reducing violence through intense personal engagement with potential young offenders, in court as well as on the street. Boston's approach proved that crime reduction, the fair administration of justice, and community harmony could advance together.

The New York strategy of the 1990s had at least one enormous advantage over Boston's: It was sustainable by the police department. Had New York been less fortunate in its choice of mayor and police commissioner in 2001, the New York strategy might have stalled or collapsed. Happily, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's choice of Ray Kelly to lead the department gave New York City perhaps the most talented and sophisticated leadership team that has ever managed an American police service. The police-centered strategy to reduce crime had flaws, but it gave Kelly's team the authority to sustain and improve it, and they had the skills to do both.

Not only has crime continued to decline in New York City, but confidence in the police has grown in minority communities. In 1997, for example, despite plummeting crime, only 22 percent of black New Yorkers approved of the way the police were doing their job, but by 2005 more than half approved. In 1997, three-quarters of black New Yorkers thought that police brutality was a very serious problem in their city; in 2005 fewer than half held that opinion.

The point is that New York City has found a police-centered strategy that suits its size and government. Even in New York today, there are some worrying trends. The last six months of 2005 saw an upsurge in shootings, and while all violent index crimes were down citywide, about a third of police precincts reported an increase in homicides from the year before, and about half an increase in robberies. Still, the fundamental gains have been sustained, violent crime is even lower than in 2001, the controversial Street Crimes Unit has been disbanded, and community trust has surged.

Boston, too, found a strategy in the '90s that suited its size and government, but one that proved structurally difficult to sustain. Recent commentaries, including some in this paper, have mistakenly treated the Boston partnerships as a police strategy; but the truly innovative and valuable feature of Boston's solution to violent crime was that it could not be reduced to a police program. Boston had taken advantage of its small size and tradition of public citizenship among the leaders of its religious congregations, epitomized in the Ten Point Coalition, to forge a true collaboration to end violence. More surprising, it had taken advantage of the co-location of its city, county, and state governments -- a feature of American government that often sabotages comprehensive solutions to problems -- and shaped it into the foundation of a successful response to crime. The same foundation that proved so strong in the moment, however, meant that no single member had the authority to sustain it: not the police commissioner, not even the mayor.

The challenge facing us in Boston today is not only to reinvigorate these partnerships, but to build the foundation stronger than it was, with new elements that allow its success to be sustained. The situation is not grim. Almost half the police districts in Boston recorded declines in homicide in 2005, and almost half recorded declines in robbery. As in New York, the story differs by neighborhood.

Like New York, Boston is fortunate in its mayor and police commissioner. Mayor Thomas M. Menino and Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole rightly insist at every turn that their determination to reduce violent crime is matched by commitments to integrity and justice in investigation and prosecution. They maintain an enviable set of relationships among Boston's multiple justice agencies and between its police and residents. And they are building new partnerships on top of these relationships, for example, in the Cape Verdean community and with federal law enforcement. That plays to Boston's strength, but the real test is whether today's partnerships will be more enduring than last time.

Three specific elements could strengthen the foundation of these partnerships.

First, a leadership quintet should be formalized and staffed, comprised of city, county, state, federal, and community leaders. Because the membership of such a quintet will inevitably change, a professional staff is essential.

Second, measurement tools to track progress against violent crime need to be broadened to fit Boston's approach. Tracking crime numbers alone arguably weakened New York's strategy in the 1990s and cost it community support. Commissioner O'Toole already seems determined to improve Boston's biannual public safety survey, tracking public confidence in the police more frequently, but an expanded survey should also measure satisfaction with the rest of the justice system. A new generation of measurement tools in Boston could become as renowned a model for collaborative governance of public safety as New York's CompStat proved a decade ago for single-agency performance management.

Finally, the training of tomorrow's leadership should begin today. Despite the successes in the '90s, Boston continues to train its rookie police, prosecutors, corrections staff, and community social workers in isolation from each other, and their senior counterparts get hardly any training at all. Collaborative governance requires collaborative training, including joint leadership training for seasoned professionals and community activists.

Reviving the successful partnership programs of the 1990s -- Operation Ceasefire, the Boston Gun Project, Operation Nightlight -- will not be enough. We need to build on the past while making new improvements, just as New York City is doing with its strategies. If the safety of Boston's streets is again to rival New York City's for world attention, we need to improve upon what we have done well before, not merely repeat it.

Christopher Stone is a professor of criminal justice at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

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