Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fall-off in Homicides: Just the Rain?

If homicides have decreased in Boston over the past few months because of the weather, that would hardly account for the fatal shooting of Soheil Turner.

The 15 year-old student was shot on a rainy morning, outside a convenience store on Dudley Street. According to investigators, the killer, who was wearing dark sunglasses, was equipped with a .380 semi-automatic handgun and an umbrella.

Since the day Turner was shot, on May 7, Boston has had an abnormally high number of cloudy days and—by comparison with last year--a decrease in rate of homicides. Some observers say the recent drop in homicides and shootings can be partially explained by the weather. But others say the reasons could include everything from efforts by law enforcement and medical personnel to anti-violence programs and the neighborhood walks by community volunteers.

From the beginning of this year through July 19, there have been 27 homicides in Boston, down 25% from the figure from the same date last year. Homicides are also down in some other large cities around the country. The weather has been cited for the decrease in New York City, but the Washington Post reports homicides are also down in cities with different weather patterns, including Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

In Boston, the decrease in homicides has been very noticeable in areas that have usually experienced the most violence. In Area B (Roxbury, Mattapan and part of Dorchester), there have been 5 homicides since Turner was killed, but only one since June 14: the stabbing death of a 49 year-old man on July 27. In Area C (Dorchester and South Boston), over the same period of almost seven weeks, there has been only one homicide—a 74 year-old man allegedly stabbed by a 64 year-old woman.

About a week after Turner was shot, a three-year old boy and a 70 year-old woman were struck by shots fired into a store on Bowdoin Street by a sixteen year-old suspect. The shootings were non-fatal, but the next day, Mayor Menino and Police Commissioner Ed Davis were on Bowdoin Street to announce they would increase patrols and visibility in “hot spot” areas.

Even by last December, there were plans for a violence prevention strategy with a new way of deploying street workers funded by the Boston Foundation. Instead of only city street workers who finished their shift at 8 p.m., the “Street Safe” program would have some workers be on the clock till midnight, then be available on call. The street workers are jointly administered by the city and the Boston Ten Point Coalition.

At a meeting in June, law enforcement authorities and church leaders warned gang members that violence would meet with tough sentencing. They also offered alternatives to gang activity. The approach had been tried before, but Ten Point Coalition Executive Director Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown said the newest group responded with “less bravado” and more interest in alternatives.

“This time around, the kids were really listening to us,” said Brown.

“You’ve got a younger set of shooters than before,” he explained, “so they seem more apt to listen to people approaching them out on the street, who are out there to help them rather than put them in jail.”

Over the last three weeks, Brown says, street workers have helped make it possible for members of different gangs to spend time at Washington Park in Roxbury without conflicts.

“They’re not looking to do anything,” he said. “They’re just trying to relax in the city.”

Along with the street workers, Brown credits community volunteers who walk through “hot spot” neighborhoods.

Less reassuring this year are the figures on Boston’s non-fatal shootings. As of July 19, the total number of all shootings this year was slightly higher than it was last year.

Given the fall-off in homicides without a decrease in shootings, the founder and director of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, Clementina Chéry, says the reason might be neither the weather nor efforts of law enforcement.

“So people get shot but don’t get killed? Who gets credit for that?” she asked. “Hospitals are doing a better job in treating victims.”

Through May 25, the total number of non-fatal shootings for this year was 89, up from the figure for the same period last year by more than 50 percent. But, from May 25 through July 19 this year, the figure was 39, down from the same period last year by 35 percent.

The executive director of the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, Emmett Folgert, notes the recent change in shootings, and the kind of people involved.

“The gang stuff is down,” he says.

But Folgert says one reason could be fewer targets on porches and sidewalks for drive-by shooters—on account of the weather.

“The rain is our best friend,” he said.

But there have also been changing trends in arrests and convictions.

A spokesperson for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, Jake Wark, says the conviction rate for homicide has improved over the past two years, while more people are being prosecuted on gun charges.

“That takes some players off the street longer than they used to after a gun arrest,” he said.

Folgert says the Boston Police have done “a lot of good work getting guns off the street.” So far, the Boston Police report arrests for all gun-related offenses have increased this year by 8 percent.

Chéry says there should be more attention to the reasons for violence. Like other leaders of community-based programs, Chéry and Folgert have described much violence as retaliatory and cyclical. But Folgert says a cycle of violence can be moderated by a cycle of weather.

“We’ve all heard that violence begets more violence,” he said. “Well, peace begets more peace.”

Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Money, New Plans for School Reform

This post appears as an article in the Dorchester Reporter.

When Boston School officials tried to save money this year by cutting costs in student transportation, they met with strong resistance from parents who put more hopes in choice, even with the need for a bus ride.

By estimates of the Boston School Dept., the parents who stand to lose from a cutback in choice and busing are a minority, while almost three-quarters prefer schools close to where they live. But the parents who cling to wider choices are a diverse population, and their support for busing as a vehicle of choice has been reinforced by other Boston parents sending their children to charter schools and parochial schools.

“You’re not going to have people give up their child’s transportation,” said one parent, “if their child is going to go to a lower quality school.”

Under a proposed student assignment plan put out for discussion in May, a disproportionate number of under-performing schools would have been in zones that include Dorchester and Mattapan. When officials decided later to slow down the change in the assignment process, Superintendent Carol Johnson asked for more information about school improvement and ensuring access to quality throughout the city.

Johnson’s comments were in a memo dated June 3, the same day another Boston Public School parent, City Councilor Sam Yoon, called for raising the cap on charter schools in Boston. These public schools operate independently of the Boston School Dept., and Yoon wanted the cap to be lifted only for charter schools that were successful.

Within a few days, there was support for raising the cap from another BPS parent and City Councilor running for mayor, Michael Flaherty. The same day Flaherty came out with his education platform, Mayor Thomas Menino announced plans to file state legislation that would allow more charter schools to open, but under control of the Boston School Committee. The charters would be conversions of schools that consistently under-perform.

The move also comes after a slow-down in the expansion of innovative “pilot schools,” though the Boston Teachers Union has agreed more recently to the opening of additional pilots. In January, a new study showed an advantage for a sample of students in charter schools over students in the BPS district schools and pilot schools. BPS officials argue the study draws mostly on a sample from the best charter schools, but they acknowledge that charters get better results in math for 8th graders.

While some question the state’s definition of under-performing schools, there is still concern in Boston about the racial gap in achievement and the number of dropouts (1,447 students last year, according to the Boston Plan for Excellence). The Plan for Excellence also reports that 56% of the BPS 9th graders were “off-track to graduate” in the 3rd quarter of the last school year, and 26% were “severely off track.”

“Although we’ve made tremendous gains in the Boston Public Schools, I am frustrated with the pace of our progress, especially in our low performing schools,” Mayor Menino said last month. “To get the results we seek – at the speed we want – we must make transformative changes that boost achievement for students, improve quality choices for parents, and increase opportunities for teachers.”

Unlike the pilot schools—innovative schools within the system—the new charters could be set up without approval by the BTU. Each school would have a performance contract, and the plan calls for failing schools to close. The plan has been described as an abrupt shift by Menino, and even as an election-year gesture with little chance of overcoming opposition at the State House from teachers’ unions.

But Menino’s qualified support for alternatives to the Boston Schools is hardly new, given his presence at ground-breakings for parochial schools and charter schools—one as far back as 2001, and another the day before announcing his in-city charter bill. The last appearance was at the future home of the Renaissance Charter School, which is relocating to an old mill and warehouse in Hyde Park with the help of financing from an agency staffed by the Boston Redevelopment Authority.

When the Boston Municipal Research Bureau took notice of the growing support for charter school expansion, it gave more reasons—the 5,264 students from Boston already enrolled in charter schools, and another 8,577 still on wait lists.

But, last week, when Menino and Governor Deval Patrick shared a podium at the Museum of Science with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, their support for more charter schools was linked with a chance to get more federal money, a nationwide total of $4.35 billion.

Governor Patrick hopes to use some of the money in Massachusetts for additional charter schools that would have to meet conditions for inclusion, especially for English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. The governor also hopes to use the federal money for transforming chronically under-performing schools into “Readiness Acceleration Schools.” These would be under state authority, but they would have more autonomy from local districts, and there would be new services outside the schools for students and their families.

Menino and Patrick have expressed concerns over the effect of charter school expansion on budgets for local school districts, and charter schools have also attracted students who, in past years, might have gone to parochial schools. Menino is still against lifting cap on expansion of the regular “Commonwealth” charter schools, provided the legislature allows the “in-district” charters. Even last Thursday, Patrick said the funding formula for additional charter schools “needs to be looked at.”

According to the vice chair of the Boston School Committee, Marchelle Raynor, there is no redirection of funding needed under the mayor’s proposal for “in-district” charter schools. And Raynor says the schools could be in operation as early as this September.

The mayor’s plan has been greeted with skepticism from the Boston Teachers Union and the Mass. Charter Public School Association, which represents the “Commonwealth” schools.

“We want to make sure that when he creates these ‘in-district’ schools,” said Association spokesperson Dominic Slowey, “there’s the high level of accountability as with the Commonwealth system.”

BTU President Richard Stutman called the mayor’s plan “poorly thought out.” And he described the announcement by Patrick and Menino as “nine-tenths stimulus money.”

By including merit pay for teachers in his plan, Menino has aligned himself with Duncan. When Menino announced his plan last month, he said the incentives would make teachers “jointly accountable” for results in the classroom, and help attract “more excellent educators.”

Stutman says teachers would go along with extra pay that could be shared by a team, but not with incentives for individuals. “It’s so difficult,” he said, “to measure who’s contributing what.”

The governor’s also facing some resistance to his plan from the Mass. Charter Public School Association. Though the governor stops short of setting quotas for enrollment of demographic groups in new charter schools, he wants to require best efforts in recruitment. The Association says this could be an incentive to keep students in the categories of English Language Learner or special needs even after they should be in regular classrooms.

Advocates for choice and local officials still argue some types of students are under-represented in the Commonwealth charter schools. And they blame some charter schools for shedding students who either drop out or end up in the local district schools.

“It’s easier to teach a population that doesn’t require special services,” says Stutman. “It’s cheaper, too.”

But a cutback in busing has also been viewed as a way of inadvertently encouraging more parents to choose Commonwealth charter schools. Earlier this year, Boston officials were trying to end citywide enrollment at elementary and middle schools, which they said would make it easier to apply the same restriction to students at charter and parochial schools. That plan has met with legal barriers, as well as opposition from different groups.

“It would be a hardship for a lot of parents to come up with their own transportation,” said Slowey, “plus, it would be in conflict with state law.”

The assistant director for Boston School Reform at Mass. Advocates for Children, Kim Janey, said it would be unfair to continue citywide transportation for students in charter schools while elementary and middle school students in the Boston Public Schools could only be bused within one of five zones.

“You run the risk of perpetuating a two-tier system in the city,” said Janey.

In an interview on Neighborhood Network News, Raynor said the in-district charter schools proposed by the mayor would not require additional transportation.

In his announcement last month, Menino did not specify whether the in-district charter schools could have citywide enrollment and transportation. But, if they did, Stutman says, that “would increase transportation costs by millions of dollars.”

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Housing Market Stirs Demand, Hits Snags

Note: this article appears in the Jul2, 2009 issue of the Dorchester Reporter.

Crosscurrents in Dorchester’s real estate market are pulling in different directions—extending the fall-off in prices of the past two years, but also showing signs of new vitality.

“If someone’s telling you there’s no business, they’re not in our neighborhood,” says the Dorchester office manager for Jack Conway & Co., Julie Simmons.

“There is a lot of activity now,” she says. “That $8,000 tax credit is really bringing people in.”

But even agents who vouch for people willing to buy and sell say their customers still meet obstacles.

“Definitely the buyers are there. They’re eager to buy because the prices are low,” says Patrick Dorcena, an agent who does business in Dorchester for Torrez Realty in Brockton. “What’s killing us are the banks.”

Working in favor of a turn-around in the market is the federal tax credit created primarily for first-time home-buyers. But tighter lending standards, especially for condos, have been holding off buyers who fail to qualify for government programs. And Dorcena says some lenders have been challenging sales prices with their own appraisals, or pulling out of deals at the last minute, slowing down sales by as much as six months.

According to figures collected by the Warren Group, the spring market in Dorchester hardly appears robust. Sales of single-family homes through the end of May are down from last year’s total by almost 20%, though the median price is slightly higher.

Condo sales in Dorchester are much more numerous, and they exceed last year’s total through May by more than 6 percent. But, over the same period, the median price for those units is down by almost 60 percent.

The owner of Just In Boston Properties, Justin Green, says the aggregate price for condos is “totally askew” because of the numerous distressed sales, often after foreclosures.

Many condo units in distressed sales have been selling for less than $100,000, and some for less than $50,000. But, in less than 2½ years, prices for one unit in a three-family house on Bellflower Street, just a few blocks from Andrew Square, have swung sharply both ways. In January, 2007, unit 3 sold for $360,000. All three units would later be foreclosed. After unit 3 was sold last November for $121,500, it was sold again in May of this year for $299,000.

According to Green, the streets between Edward Everett Square and Andrew Square are one housing market that could be poised for an upturn. And he says the same potential exists in other parts of Dorchester close to the Red Line.

“It stands to reason,” he said, “that something along a train line, a train line that’s been renovated, is a location that’s going to be in demand.”

And, just a few blocks from JFK/UMass. Station, a loft unit at 950 Dorchester Avenue sold in May for $410,000.

Between the extremes are unit sales with a less dramatic fall-off in price. One is a three-decker unit on Sawyer Avenue, on Jones Hill. It sold last month for $250,000, after having been on the market last summer for $279,000. The seller bought the unit almost five years ago for $309,000.

Though the tax credit for first-time homebuyers is scheduled to expire later this year, Green says the condo market in Dorchester could be in for some relief from new rules being introduced by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Starting October 1, the FHA will insure some mortgages for condos in buildings up to 4 units. That would make financing available with down payments of 3.5 percent. With conventional loans, the current down payment required on many condo units for buyers without serious credit problems can run as high as 20 percent.

Like Simmons, Green says there has been more activity recently, and he describes the spring housing market in Dorchester as “very strong,” with “a lot of sales.”

“We’re very busy here,” he said. “Not only is everybody working, but putting deals together and getting financing.”

But Simmons points to signs that recovery is still a way off.

“People aren’t moving as often as we would like in this business,” she said.

And the backlog on sales has an effect on rentals.

“A lot of rentals are sitting on the market there, and a lot of condos are being rented,” said Simmons.

“So regular condos,” she explained, “have to compete against the granite and stainless steel.”

Simmons says that makes for more of a renter’s market. But other agents say rents in Dorchester are holding steady, with prices mostly in the range of $1,100 to $1,300 a month. And Green says his agency sees more customers looking for apartments.

“The price of renting hasn’t increased too much,” he said, “but the demand has definitely increased.”

The senior organizer for City Life/Vida Urbana, Steve Meacham, says there have been “significant rent increases,” even in neighborhoods that bore the brunt of mortgage foreclosures.

“Banks were holding so much property off the market in low and moderate income neighborhoods in Boston,” he said, “that it was pushing up the rental market.”

Also seeing little relief for renters was the director of media and public relations for the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, Lucy Warsh.

“We still have a major need for affordable units in most of the affordable neighborhoods, such as Dorchester and Roxbury,” she said.

In parts of Dorchester with more multi-family housing and a higher concentration of foreclosures, unit sales are often to investors buying in bulk. The city has turned over some foreclosed units in three-deckers, but with an eye toward having them redeveloped as rental property, preferably with an owner-occupant in one unit.

According to the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, more than one-third of Boston’s mortgage foreclosures in 2008 were in Dorchester, and more than half of those were in condominiums--many created in three-deckers.

“We’re seeing that it’s not the best model for the three-deckers, unless you have a more affluent group,” said the director of the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, Evelyn Friedman.

“One of the big challenges of a small condo association,” she argued, “is that if you have one person stop paying the condo fees, the whole association falls apart.”

The treasurer for the Dorchester Home and Garden Trust, Patrick Cooke, predicts recovery will be significantly slower in areas with the most foreclosures. And he says the foreclosures and the economic downturn are also cooling off the rental market.

“I don’t think it’s going to drop precipitously,” he said, “but it’s into a long, slow decline, and landlords are going to have to adjust their expectations.”

Cooke has been renovating houses in Dorchester for thirty years, and he has seen earlier downturns in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

“The downward pressure on the market is going to continue to be felt for some time,” he predicts.

In Dorchester’s multi-family housing, Cooke likens the latest downturn to a “can of worms,” confronting potential buyers with the expense of aging properties and the hurdles left by collapsing or non-functioning condo associations.

“The market,” he said, “almost has to get worse in order for these things to be salvaged.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Thin Blue Line in Black and White

The immediate chain of events that led to the beating of Michael Cox by fellow officers on the Boston Police Department took place at three locations: a bar in Dorchester’s Four Corners, a hamburger joint in Grove Hall, and a dead-end street in Mattapan. The settings might just as well have been the Wild West, where the hold of law and order is stretched thin, and the distinction between true and false, or good and evil, can be scrambled in a burst of violence and the frenzy of a chase. But the chain of events reaching farther back and farther beyond raises the chaos and calculation of one night to an indictment of a city’s leadership.

Since the incident took place in January, 1995, the case around the beating and the overturned conviction of fellow officer Kenneth Conley have been widely reported in Boston media. In his new book about the case, The Fence, Dick Lehr, a journalism professor at Boston University and former investigative reporter with The Boston Globe, shows the connections with a series of costly blunders by the Boston Police, including missed signals of trouble ahead.

As Lehr announces in the full title of the book, the story is about “a police cover-up along Boston’s racial divide.” On one side is Michael Cox, an African-American who grew up in Roxbury, working at the time as a plainclothes officer in the gang unit. Though at least one officer present at the beating was also an African-American, Lehr’s narrative traces a definite fault line, mainly between Boston’s black community and public authorities—all the way from responders on the street to police command, the mayor’s administration, and prosecutors.

The beating took place after a lengthy police chase through Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. At the end, police arrested four suspects, but it was Cox who was by far the most battered—suggesting the force used on him was excessive even for subduing a criminal.

The chase began with what proved to be a fatal shooting around 2 a.m. in Grove Hall, at Walaikum’s Burger. The victim was also targeted by mistake, incorrectly linked to a long-running feud with a gang member spotted earlier at the bar in Four Corners, Cortee’s Lounge.

The next mistake would be a phone call from the scene of the shooting falsely reporting the victim was a police officer. It's another crossing of lines, with even more to follow. In a world where cops try to blend in with gangsters, and where suspects scrupulously signal turns while trying to zig-zag away from patrol cars, it’s not too much of a stretch to say the distinction between the two sides can sometimes be as porous as, well, a chain-link fence.

The false report from Walaikum’s made the chase larger and more frantic, a whole posse of Boston Police, Municipal Police and even private security guards—likened at one point to a high-speed funeral procession. At the end of the chase, on a dead-end street, Cox tried to pursue one of the suspects by scaling a chain-link fence. Before he could get to the other side, he was knocked down and kicked in the face. The next thing he registered was that a police officer was trying to place him under arrest.

The book leaves no doubt this was quickly recognized as a mistake. Had the mistakes ended there, Lehr argues, there would have been disciplinary action against a few officers—but probably with no one losing a job, no federal prosecution of Kenneth Conley, and no harassment of Cox by anonymous tormenters. It’s also likely the city’s taxpayers would have been spared anything like the figure of $1.3 million dollars for eventually settling the civil rights suit brought by Cox.

But the next mistakes at the scene of the beating were more deliberate. The officers who beat Cox left him on the ground without calling for help. Though other officers did call for medical attention, the first supervisors on the scene made it more difficult to establish what happened and who was responsible. That even applied to the arrests of four suspects who had been chased.

Within a few first months after the beating—having started an internal investigation more than one week after the fact—officials in the Police Dept. showed signs of knowing about the mistakes and conflicting reports from officers on the scene. What police and prosecutors failed to do was to break the silence of witnesses who tried to avoid incriminating themselves and their fellow officers. And two supervisors who made it more difficult to determine what happened on the scene were later promoted.

According to Lehr, police officials failed to use opportunities for at least putting pressure on officers they suspected of taking part in the beating and cover-up. Commissioner Paul Evans did take disciplinary action against four officers, but that was more than 3½ years after the fact—and shortly before Cox’s civil rights suit went to trial. And Lehr notes this was also two years after any new information had been turned up on the case by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. “The truth was,” wrote Lehr, “Evans could have taken the officers off the street a long time ago.”

Another chain of error led to the conviction of Officer Kenneth Conley for perjury—supposedly for failing to admit he saw Cox’s beating. The conviction was later overturned, after evidence came to light showing weakness in the case against Conley—evidence that should have been disclosed to Conley’s attorney. Even that information might have languished in a folder, if not for a challenge to disciplinary action by Conley’s partner, Bobby Dwan.

Even more embarrassing for law enforcement agencies was the identification of officers involved in the beating by one of the suspects being chased, a drug-dealer from Mattapan, Robert “Smut” Brown. He gave testimony placing one officer at the scene, and he helped build the case against Conley by mistakenly assuming he was the white officer near Cox at the fence.

Later, while Conley was on trial, Brown tried to correct that mistake right after he spotted another white officer, Jimmy Burgio, in the lobby of the federal courthouse. When Brown tried to tell an FBI agent the white officer he saw at the fence was actually Burgio, there was no interest. In Lehr’s fallen world of bungling by authorities, it turns out the closest thing to a detective may have been a career criminal.