Sunday, March 2, 2008

Home Searches for Guns Meet Resistance

When she got up to speak at a “town hall meeting” February 21 in Dorchester, Isaura Mendes didn’t have to mention that two of her sons had been murdered.

“If you have little children, before they go to school—search their bag,” she told a packed room of more than one hundred people at the headquarters of the Mass. Assn. of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.

“If they have a little room,” she said, “then don’t let them lock their door.”

The words could have been advice to the family of LaQuarrie Jefferson, the 8 year-old boy who was accidentally shot at home in Roxbury last June, while playing with a 7 year-old cousin.

The boy’s death led to a fierce public debate, with elected officials and community leaders decrying the easy access to illegal guns. On the other side of the debate were the commentators who blamed adults in the family. Aside from having criminal records, some family members even tried to mislead the police by initially reporting the boy’s death as the result of a home invasion.

For Boston Police officials, the death of Liquarry Jefferson is a reason to move forward with a search program known as the “Safe Homes Initiative.” The initiative is partially based on a program in St. Louis that is credited with extracting 510 guns over 18 months during the mid-1990s. But, after months of planning and discussion with the community, the program still faces strong criticism from most of Boston’s African-American elected officials.

As described by the Police Dept., the searches would be done with the consent of parents. Homes would be chosen for visits on the basis of referrals from schools, community organizations, parents, clergy, or anonymous tips. Police making the home visits would be officers assigned to the Boston Public Schools. There would also be follow-up visits to help families with needs for social services. Officials say any gun found in a teenager’s room would not result in illegal weapons charges, since their aim is get guns off the streets.

At the community meeting in Dorchester most of the panelists were raising concerns about the program. They warned about the effect on relationships between parents and children, the possibility of legal problems, and the potential for information to be shared with other authorities.

“When we let the police officers into our house, it creates a problem with the parents,” said Mendes.

Also getting up to criticize the program at the meeting were four of the city’s seven African-American elected officials.

“If you snitch on your son, you’ve got to live with that baby,” warned State Rep. Gloria Fox.

“If the parent calls the police,” she said, “and if they don’t refer her to the wrap-around services she needs for her son, what will she have done?”

“This is not about us turning our children over to the police,” said State Senator Dianne Wilkerson.

“It’s not supposed to be where they start,” she said. “It’s supposed to be where they end up when everything else fails.”

According to a description of the initiative by the Boston Police Dept., parents can refuse a search, limit the areas of the search in the home, or call for a stop at any time. But legal experts and elected officials at the meeting said parents would feel pressured.

“Is that a situation in which they can make a free and clear and intelligent decision?” asked City Councilor Chuck Turner. “I would say ‘No.’”

A staff attorney with the Mass. American Civil Liberties Union, Sarah Wunsch, called the searches “inherently intimidating and coercive.”

“The only reason to show up on someone’s doorstep is that it’s intimidating,” said Wunsch, “and people are likely to open the door and allow a search.”

Councilor Charles Yancey said no program should go into effect “without the full support of this community.”

“We should not support this program of having police coming unannounced to investigate what’s going on in your son or your daughter’s bedroom,” he said.

A panelist at the meeting who strongly advised against giving consent to home searches was defense attorney and civil rights activist James S. Dilday.

“The problem is this, ladies and gentlemen: you as the parents, as adults, cannot think if you allow a police officer to come in and search your child’s room that everything is going to be fine,” he said.

“All I’m telling you, ladies and gentlemen, is--don’t give up your rights,” said Dilday. “Do I like what some of these little assholes are doing? No. Do I think it’s worth giving up some of your constitutional rights? Absolutely not.”

The Boston Police Dept. has a long history of conflict with the black community over searches. There was the stop-and-frisk campaign seven years ago that many community leaders said was applied too indiscriminately. There was the misdirected drug raid that led to the death of a 75 year-old minister, Rev. Accelyne Williams, in 1994. There was also the search in 1989 for the black suspect falsely accused in the murder of Carol Stuart by her husband and likely killer, Charles Stuart.

“If you don’t have a relationship, a positive relationship with people in the community,” said Turner, “you’re not going to be able to solve crimes.”

But police say the search program will expand positive relationships by directing families to social services. One of the leading planners of the “Safe Homes Initiative,” Deputy Supt. Gary French, says consenting to search of a room could also help families avoid legal problems. He cites a recent case of a parent who called about a gun kept by her 15 year-old son. After police arrived, they eventually found the gun in his possession, leaving him to face criminal charges and a criminal record.

“It’s the type of situation when that program would have been ideal for that particular family,” said French, in an interview on Neighborhood Network News. “It would have gotten the gun out of the street, provided some services into the family, and would have stopped the situation from developing to where now the kid is under arrest—he’s looking at a severe sentence.”

Supporters of the program say it could also deter older, hardened criminals from storing guns with juveniles. A juvenile caught with a gun would face less serious charges. But an older person with a gun might be more reluctant to pass it on, if it seemed more likely a juvenile’s room would be searched.

“We’re interested in getting that child with a young age,” said French, “a kid who’s not a fringe player in a gang, but maybe thinking about getting involved in a gang, or maybe holding a firearm for a gang member, getting that gun away from the child, and protecting and helping him out.”

Also in dispute is whether information connected with a search could be shared with other authorities. The Police Dept. says school or public housing authorities would get information about recovery of a weapon only if were “necessary to protect public safety.”

“This is a confidential program,” said French. “The records are going to be kept in the School Dept., in the School Police office. It’s not going to be shared with the individual headmasters. We have no interest in notifying (immigration authorities) or any other agency. What we are interested in doing is getting the firearm off the street and pumping services into that family.”

But Wunsch emphasizes the possibility of information being shared.

“They’re hanging on to the right to inform school officials about what they find in the home,” she said.

The Police Dept. has been planning to introduce the initiative in four neighborhoods which have been affected by gun violence in recent years: Bowdoin-Geneva and Franklin Field-Franklin Hill in Dorchester, Grove Hall, and Egleston Square and “5W’s” in Roxbury. The populations in these areas are primarily black, Latino, or Cape Verdean. Community leaders criticizing the initiative say the target areas are another example of racial profiling. But even they acknowledge that public agencies and people in the community should be able to identify a family that needs some kind of intervention to prevent violence.

While there’s agreement on all sides that Boston needs something more than another gun buyback program, some question whether intervention should take the form of a house call by police.

“All they really need to do,” said Wunsch, “is publicize a phone number to call and a person to call.”

French says weapons recovery requires expertise.

“We prefer to recover those guns for public safety purposes,” he said.

Even without the search program in affect last year, the Boston Police recovered 800 firearms. In 2006, the total was 805. And critics of the initiative argue that it concentrates on only a small part of a much larger problem.

“This would be like trying to fix a leak in your sink by putting a bucket there to catch the water,” said Wilkerson.

“We have to have a working, effective law enforcement authority in this city,” she said. “It’s not their job to be raising our children.”

And Turner says the problem of violence in Boston goes beyond “just a few thugs.”

“If you have 11,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of school and out of work, you’re going to have crime and violence,” said Turner.

"The only way to begin to solve it,” he said, “is to create a relationship with those young people who are out of work and out of school first.”

One speaker at the meeting who brought up the case of LaQuarrie Jefferson was retired Boston Police Superintendent Bobby Johnson.

“We do have to think about the civil rights of our kids, but sometimes we have to go one step further,” he said.

“I would think that if this panel could blow up the plan that Gary French has,” he added, “they can go one step further and craft a plan that’s good for the community.”

Also: see video report on "Safe Homes Initiative" by NNN reporter Joe Rowland.