Surge in city homicides laid to drug crime

Release of dealers, money woes blamed

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / November 11, 2010

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The number of people slain in Boston has risen 46.5 percent since this time last year, a dramatic increase that Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis attributed to a rise in drug crime.

Davis said a combination of more people turning to the drug trade to make money and the release of drug dealers from prison has helped fuel street violence that has led to 63 homicides through Nov. 8 of this year. At this point last year, there had been 43 killings.

The increase in drug-related homicides comes after several years in which police have attributed many slayings to feuding and score-settling among street gangs.

Many of this year’s homicide victims are older and have long drug crime records, Davis said. And a significant number of victims have been killed during apparent drug robberies or targeted by perpetrators police believe are dealers, he said.

“It’s very unusual,’’ Davis said of the trend. “We just need to be very aggressive in our narcotics investigations and make sure that we’re targeting the individuals in the drug business in the same way we have with the gangs.’’

Davis declined to say how many of the killings this year he believes are drug-related or to provide specific examples, because, he said, many of the homicides are being investigated by a Suffolk County grand jury.

Since September, there have been 21 homicides in Boston.

The preliminary investigations into the killings of the last two months show that many of them have been connected to drugs, usually street narcotics, like crack cocaine.

Police believe a widely publicized quadruple homicide in Mattapan on Sept. 28 was the result of a drug encounter gone wrong. In another instance, police found a large amount of crack cocaine on Dearborn Street in Roxbury, where a 30-year-old man was found fatally stabbed outside a liquor store Nov. 6.

Police also believe the age of homicide victims is an indicator of the role drugs play, because, they say, older offenders are more likely to become involved in the drug trade than join gangs. So far this year, 20 victims have been at least 30 years old, compared with 13 people in the same age group during the same time period last year.

“We’ve actually seen drug ripoffs that are directly connected to homicides,’’ Davis said. “We’ve seen people who have long drug histories who have been killed in sort of a quiet, back-alley type of location. That’s consistent with someone who is being targeted because of their activity in the narcotics field.’’

Davis said police are struggling with an influx of convicted drug dealers who have been released from prison. The bleak economy could also be leading more people to turn to the trade, he said.

“My thought is that we could be seeing the impact of a long-term economic downturn and a lack of jobs available for people who are starting to get back in the drug business and not doing it very well,’’ Davis said. “When there are more people involved in drug robberies, it upsets the whole environment, and you can get some incidents of the type that we’ve seen recently.’’

Davis said this year’s drug-related homicides differ from those associated with the crack epidemic that helped fuel so much of the violence that plagued the city in the 1980s and led to a record 152 killings in 1990.

“That was open-air drug markets,’’ Davis said. “We don’t have open-air drug markets anymore. This is very targeted activity among a group of people that are known to each other in the drug business. Quite frankly, if you’re not one of those people, you have very little to worry about in terms of these increases that we’ve seen.’’

The increase in the homicide rate in Boston is at odds with a slight drop in homicides statewide.

In Worcester, the state’s second largest city, there were five homicides by Nov. 8, compared with six during the same time period last year.

In Springfield, there were 13 homicides by Nov. 8, compared with 19 at the same time last year.

State Police — who respond to homicides in every municipality other than Springfield, Boston, and Worcester — said that this year they had responded to 99 homicides by Nov. 8, compared with 101 at the same time last year.

Nationwide, the numbers are mixed. Some large cities, like Los Angeles and Chicago, have experienced a drop in the number of homicides. Other cities have experienced spikes; New York has had 459 homicides by Nov. 7, a 15 percent increase compared with the same time period last year.

Despite the increase in homicides in Boston, the number of killings here remains low when compared with that in other cities of similar size. Washington, D.C., had 114 homicides by Nov. 9, and Baltimore had 190 homicides during the same time period, numbers that are lower than at this point in 2009 for those cities.

Boston’s current spike in homicides could be an aberration, said David Kennedy, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Although gangs can be fueled for years by grudges and feuds, those who steal from, or kill, drug dealers do not last long on the streets, he said.

“If there is a spike of that kind of stuff in Boston, then I would really expect that it would be a blip and not a trend,’’ Kennedy said. “The fact is — and this is really, really gruesome, but it’s true — when you’ve got groups like that operating, they either get locked up or killed really fast.’’

Gang feuds continue to be a factor in some Boston homicides, but Davis said police have continued to target gangs through arrest sweeps and strategies like Operation Ceasefire, through which law enforcement officials work with community leaders to intervene with gangs and warn members that they will receive tough federal penalties if they continue to be violent.

Darnell L. Williams, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, said city officials and community leaders need to look for new solutions that will address the systemic problems that lead to drug and gang activity.

“Whatever it is that we’ve been doing, we have not been hitting the nail on the head as it relates to the root causes that speak of this kind of lifestyle,’’ he said. “I’m just concerned that we’ve seen such horrific and tragic unnecessary deaths. When does it get to the point that it just alarms everyone in this city that we’re in lockstep that enough is enough?’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at