Authorities urged Mattapan residents Tuesday night to fight against the culture of fear that kept their neighbors from coming forward with information about last month's deadly shootings.
"It's not an easy thing to do, but that's how you take your streets back," District Attorney Daniel F. Conley told the crowd.
The neighborhood meeting, the first since four people -- including a toddler -- were murdered on Woolson Street, drew 125 people to fill a room in the Mattapan Library.
"There were a lot of people that saw stuff on Woolson Street that day, and heard the conversation outside their house," one resident said during a question-and-answer session with Conley. "They're afraid to come forward. They think about their families … they think if they come forward, they're going to get killed."
Conley said that the state's witness protection program can relocate people and offer police protect as long as there's a legitimate risk. He added that the FBI was not involved in the investigation, and that undocumented immigrants should not worry about deportation if they testify.
Police announced last week that the murders were the work of multiple perpetrators, and that suspects are still at-large in spite of the arrest of Kimani Washington, who was found in possession of the murder weapon.
Some residents expressed frustration Tuesday night by the pace with which police were finding suspects. One person wanted to know if more suspects would be identified by the end of the year. Another wanted to hear details of the case.
Conley would only address Woolson Street in generalizations, saying police and prosecutors were "making progress." He reiterated that prosecutors need evidence to get a conviction.
"Where does the evidence come from? Well, it could come from a physical item like a gun, a fingerprint, maybe if we're lucky DNA evidence. But I don't want to make it sound like a CSI episode," he said.
"Almost always, we cannot make a case unless a good citizen is willing to take the next step after they see or hear something, tell police about it, and eventually walk into court and point a finger at the accused and say this is the person who did this," he said.
Rev. William Dickerson of the Greater Love Tabernacle Church, where one of the victims was buried, said the neighborhood had to make residents, especially witnesses, feel safe in their neighborhoods.
"It's very commendable that so many people are coming together," he said. "But how do we tackle the fear? Some people are going to have to step up and say, 'I'll walk with you to the store.' "
Police assured residents that violent crime in Mattapan is actually down 2 percent over last year, and property crime is down 4 percent.
Deputy Superintendent William Gross, the zone commander for Mattapan, Dorchester, Roxbury, and South Boston, said the attendance at Tuesday night's meeting was a sign that the community was already starting to come together.
Meetings with police from the B-3 district have been a monthly tradition since January of 2009, when about 15 residents met with police for a community meeting at their offices on River Street, according to district Captain Joe Boyle.
"I talk to a lot of people in my travels, and when something goes wrong in Mattapan, Roxbury and Dorchester, they think, 'Oh, they're used to it.' In no way are we desensitized to violence," Gross told the crowd. "Your presence here shows that you care about your community, and you care about your future."
The meeting did not solely concern the Woolson Street slayings. Boyle presented an award to Saquawna Anderson, one of the teenagers who saved 94-year-old Theresa Jenkins from her burning home last week. He also presented a plaque to Redefining Our Community, a neighborhood organization that tackles graffiti and squatters, lobbies for better traffic safety, and throws an annual block party.
ROC was founded by Ron Odom and his neighbors in 2008, one year after Odom's 13-year-old son, Steven, was shot and killed while walking home from a basketball game.
"We got tired of folks who don't live in the community defining us, and of being defined by the negative people who live here," Odom said after the meeting.
Cassie Avery-Grice has been attending the police meetings since they started in January. She conceded that the shootings had spurred more residents to activism, but added, "I think the community was coming together before the shootings. We're fed up with the negative things going on in our community."