Profile No. 2

Boston Strategy To Prevent Youth Violence -- Boston, MA

Program Type or Federal Program Source:
A research and action project of comprehensive gun violence reduction strategies; National Institute of Justice.

Program Goal:
To reduce serious youth violence in Boston.

Specific Groups Targeted by the Strategy:
Youth 8-18 years old.

Geographical Area Targeted by the Strategy:
Boston, MA.

Evaluated by:
Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Contact Information:
James Jordan and Gary French
Boston Police Department
1 Schroeder Plaza
Boston, MA 02120
Phone: 617­343­5096

David Kennedy
Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone: 617­495­5188

Years of Operation:

Starting in the early to mid-1990's, Boston embarked on a series of innovative public safety strategies that focused on violent youth and illicit gun markets. Using a problem-solving approach, a broad coalition of Federal, State, and local governmental agencies, nonprofit community service organizations, businesses, religious leaders, parents, and resident stakeholders developed several programs to address the escalating number of juvenile homicides. Its enforcement strategy largely consisted of Operation Ceasefire (a gang violence abatement strategy; see profile 21), the Boston Gun Project (a gun suppression and interdiction strategy; see profile 10), and Operation Night Light (a police-probation partnership; see profile 33), each of which is described in detail below. In addition to enforcement efforts, and in keeping with its new neighborhood policing strategy, Boston also employed numerous prevention and intervention initiatives. Working with community partners, the city built on existing services in the communities to create a more extensive and effective continuum of services.

It took approximately 2 years (from 1994 to 1996) for Boston to develop its strategic plan, with hundreds of neighborhoods, community-based programs, and neighborhood groups mobilized and brought into the process. During this same period, the Boston Police Department was undergoing great change in its neighborhood policing initiatives. More than 400 participants in 16 teams (roughly half police and half other stakeholders) worked on the planning phases.

In July 1996, at about the same time that Operation Ceasefire began to be implemented, the police department published a Citywide Strategic Plan, which examined neighborhood policing goals across districts, identified players, and provided the standards and principles to guide the strategic effort. The strategic plan laid out several key components of neighborhood policing, including increasing ownership and accountability among command and patrol staff, incorporating prevention and problem-solving approaches at every level of operation, and building partnerships with stakeholders on planning and tactical issues. To accomplish these objectives, the police commissioner decentralized the department and instituted a"Same Cop, Same Neighborhood" patrol organization strategy, which assigned officers to certain blocks in neighborhoods so that they would become familiar with local issues and take a problem-solving approach in cooperation with the residents.

Also in 1996, the State enacted two laws to address violent juvenile offenders. First, the Youthful Offender statute, passed in October 1996, allowed prosecutors to indict violent youthful offenders between the ages of 14 and 17 on felony charges. Upon conviction, these juveniles can receive increased penalties in the form of adult sentences or Department of Youth Services (DYS) commitments until the age of 21, with or without a suspended adult sentence. Second, the Brett-Martin law, passed in early 1996, required that juveniles convicted of firearm possession be committed to DYS for a minimum of 6months. In addition, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office began to prosecute certain juveniles on a priority basis. These juveniles were considered threats to community safety yet could not be prosecuted under the Youthful Offender statute because of their age, lack of a previous record, or because they were charged with misdemeanors rather than felonies.

Problem-solving research for Operation Ceasefire and the Boston Gun Project

Researchers from the John F. Kennedy School of Government (KSG) at Harvard University received funding from the National Institute of Justice to apply problem-solving techniques to youth gun violence in Boston and to evaluate the effort. The research was divided into demand-side (focus on youth) and supply-side (focus on guns) components. In the demand-side research, KSG researchers looked at youth homicide data from 1990 to 1994 in Boston and found that crime was confined almost entirely to Boston's poor, African-American neighborhoods and was committed primarily by 15- to 21-year-old African-American males. Researchers also found that firearms were overwhelmingly the weapons of choice. KSG also looked at youth emergency room visits for nonfatal gunshot and sharp instrument wounds. Researchers then studied data on 155 youth murder victims and 125 known youth offenders who committed gun or knife homicides. They found that both victims and offenders had a high degree of prior criminal involvement that included court actions ranging from arraignments to sentences of probation.

From the outset, researchers worked closely with a team of police officers from the department's Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF), with probation officers covering high-risk youth gun violence neighborhoods (especially those engaged in the Night Light program), and with city-employed youth gang outreach workers, known as "street-workers." Practitioners believed that the youth violence problem was mainly a problem of gangs and that only a handful of dangerous gang offenders -- maybe no more than one-tenth of all gang members -- were driving the cycle of fear and gun crimes in Probation officers introduced researchers to a sample of young probationers who were interviewed in focus groups or individually in winter 1994 and summer 1995. Many of the juveniles said they had guns for self-defense and joined gangs for protection.

The main thrust of the KSG analysis consisted of geographical mapping over the summer of 1995. The working group of practitioners pooled their knowledge and provided the researchers with information on gang size, turf, alliances, and conflicts. They also classified 5 years of youth homicide victimization data and tied it to gangs. Boston had 61 gangs with about 1,300 members from 4 neighborhoods; these groups committed 60 percent or more of the youth homicides in the city. Based on this information, researchers constructed a territorial map of the identified gangs, containing practitioners' estimates of membership size and sociograms of alliances and antagonisms. This territorial map identified which gangs should be targeted in order to disrupt key sources of conflict. Network analysis also led to strategies to communicate a deterrence message to targeted gangs by identifying cliques that would, in turn, be most efficient at getting that message out to the largest number of gang members.

The researchers were fortunate in having access to a very rich gun data set from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). Every gun that had been used in a crime and which had come into police hands since 1991 had been traced and included in the ATF data set. Out of 1,550 records of guns from youth ages 21 and under, 809 were traceable to Federal firearm licensees, first retail purchases, or both. ATF analyzed the type, caliber, make, geographic origin, and "time-to-crime" age for each gun; the proportion of guns with obliterated serial numbers; the number of guns that had been used in substantive crimes versus those seized by police on possession charges; and adult versus youth gun patterns. In addition, ATF determined that at least half of the guns came from very small and infrequent purchases by straw purchasers and that these purchasers rarely received law enforcement attention. Interviews with youth confirmed the belief that guns were readily available to them -- through illegal purchase or borrowing. A gang might have only a few guns, but they were available to all members. Contrary to common belief, youth shunned guns that had been used in burglaries because they knew that the weapons had been used in other crimes and did not want to be held responsible.

The supply-side research dispelled the generally held belief that Boston youth gangs obtained their guns from southern States with lax gun laws. Contrary to expectations, 34 percent of traceable guns were first sold at retail in Massachusetts and close to 15 percent were from nearby New England States. Most of the guns recovered were handguns and semiautomatic pistols. Semiautomatic weapons had the shortest "time-to-crime": more than 40 percent were less than 2 years old. Serious crimes typically involved more shotguns, more in-State guns, and fewer obliterated serial numbers than guns associated with the possession charges of less serious youth offenders. In summary, the supply-side analyses indicated that new guns were coming into the youth illicit market at close to first retail sale.

Law enforcement strategies

Operation Ceasefire

Operation Ceasefire is a coordinated citywide strategy established in May 1996 to deter youth firearm violence. Ceasefire operates as a system, focusing interventions through the coordination and knowledge of all of the city's law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. The working group devised an overall strategy based on the problem-solving research of KSG and ATF, described above, and the success of tactics that had worked against gangs in the past. The goal was to communicate warnings to gangs that, if violence occurred, there would be a swift, predictable response with weighty consequences. Ceasefire has the leadership and support of the current mayor and police commissioner.

YVSF led the development of the strategy working with the U.S. Attorney, State probation, ATF, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation, DYS, the county district attorney, the clergy, streetworkers (see profile 58), and at times local community-based service providers. Prior to Operation Ceasefire, law enforcement and criminal justice agencies operated not as a system but as a disparate group of agencies, each following its own mandate and mission except when necessity dictated otherwise.

The strategy began with focused communications. Probation and gang unit police officers who knew the youth, streetworkers, clergy (see profile 46), and community-based organizations met informally and formally with gang youth in schools, homes, neighborhoods, courthouses, and other locations. Probationers were required to attend these meetings. The message was emphatically delivered to them that violence would no longer be tolerated in Boston -- it had to stop or the full weight of the law enforcement and criminal justice systems would be brought to bear on the perpetrators. The working group wanted youth to realize that this zero tolerance message was not a bluff, but a serious interagency effort. True to its word, when its message was ignored and gang violence erupted, YVSF used intensive order maintenance and enforcement tactics to quickly suppress flareups of firearm violence in emerging gang hotspots. YVSF targeted noncomplying gangs with aggressive enforcement of public drinking and motor vehicle violations, outstanding warrants, and probation surrenders and made numerous arrests. Street enforcement resulted in two dozen Federal indictments and arrests in August 1996. News of these activities quickly spread to other gangs in Boston whose members saw what could happen if they did not comply.

Boston Gun Project

Based on the analysis conducted on the ATF tracing data set, the working group decided to flag for investigation every trace that showed guns with a time-to-crime of less than 30 months, more popular gun types, guns with restored serial numbers, those in high-risk neighborhoods, and those associated with gang members or territories. Another tactic was to link the trace data set with the gang membership and turf data, which allowed for identification of gun owners who also were gang members.

Disruption of gun markets, swift Federal prosecution for gun possession or dealing, and the zero tolerance message and enforcement measures of Operation Ceasefire were all used to reduce gun violence. The major partners in gun trafficking interdiction efforts were the ATF Field Office in Boston, the Boston Police Department, the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, and the U.S. Attorney's Office, all of whom worked together to direct the investigations of firearm trafficking and armed career criminals in the city of Boston. The Boston ATF supervisor claims the key to their success has been the close working relationship and genuine cooperation between ATF and local police.

Cooperation between ATF and the police department took many forms. A seasoned Violent Crime Coordinator was assigned by ATF to investigate Federal firearm arrests. ATF attempted to trace every gun recovered by the Boston Police Department through ATF's National Tracing Center in order to discover sources of illegal weapons and gun-trafficking patterns. For their part, YVSF officers tried to extract gun market information from offenders charged with serious nongun charges. The Boston Police Department and ATF also conducted joint inspections of all Federal firearms licensees (FFL's) in Boston. As a result of these inspections, 65 license holders (80 percent) decided either not to renew their licenses or to surrender them.

Swift Federal prosecution for gun trafficking also took some traffickers off the streets and resulted in the investigation and prosecution of several interstate gun trafficking rings. These actions were thought to have a deterrent effect because Federal crimes carry longer sentences than most State gun crimes, and gang members fear being in a Federal correctional facility away from home and visitors and without the security of knowing other prisoners.

Operation Night Light

Operation Night Light began in November 1992 as a partnership between probation officers in the Dorchester District Court and Boston police officers in the Anti-Gang Violence Unit, which later became YVSF. Operation Night Light pairs one probation officer with two police officers to make unannounced visits to the homes, schools, and workplaces of high-risk youth probationers during the nontraditional hours of 7 p.m. to midnight rather than between 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., which was previously the norm. The probation officer decides which of 10 to 15 probationers to visit each evening based on which youth were defaulting on compliance. The team wears plain clothes and uses an unmarked car. The terms of probation -- which commonly include curfews, geographic restrictions, and other constraints designed to keep youth from reoffending are strictly enforced. Probation officers also have been instrumental in convincing judges to impose expanded conditions.

This teaming has enhanced the safety of the probation officers and given police an opportunity to meet people in the community in a nonconfrontational manner in accordance with their community policing role. Officers are expected to conduct themselves during these home visits in a courteous and professional manner, encouraging parents to keep their children out of trouble. The officers discuss substance abuse prevention and treatment options with the probationers and their families. Some parents welcome these interactions, as they want to protect their children from becoming victims of violence. These unannounced home visits also give borderline juveniles an excuse for staying in at night and putting off their gang leaders or associates with the argument that they would face sanctions for violating curfew.

The best intervention and enforcement efforts are also preventive. In the same way, the best prevention programs produce intervention effects. While the prevention/intervention/enforcement strategy is seen as providing a continuum of services, effects overlap. The strategy has evolved in this way because of the complexity of the overall problem.

-- Commissioner Paul F. Evans
Boston, MA, Police Commissioner

Intervention and prevention programs and initiatives in Boston

Below are some examples of intervention and prevention programs aimed at adjudicated and at-risk youth that were implemented simultaneously with Operation Ceasefire.

Boston Community Centers' Streetworkers Program

Boston has Community Centers located throughout the city, including facilities in middle and high schools. The Streetworkers Program operates from these centers with 30 college-educated staff members available 24 hours a day to conduct gang and youth outreach. The streetworkers are ages 25 to 55 and work closely with gang members to mediate disputes (student/student, student/teacher, gang/gang) and gang truces in schools and throughout the community. The streetworkers also help gang members and their families gain access to much-needed social services. Each streetworker is assigned to 5 to 10 gangs, with a caseload of roughly 25 active and 25 less active cases. They work closely with the police department, probation, clergy, courts, and schools.

When the city's homicide rate skyrocketed in 1990, the mayor sought the help of the streetworkers in the hope that their non-traditional outreach approaches could help reduce crime. For example, the street-workers played an important role in Operation Ceasefire, personally inviting gang members to meetings with Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies. The streetworkers informed gang members of the consequences of continued violence. They also referred youth to agencies that could provide social services, job training, and employment opportunities. Finally, streetworkers provided training for the police on how to develop relationships with youth and gangs.

Youth Services Providers Network (YSPN)

To achieve the comprehensive services, partnerships, coalition building, and resource sharing required of youth programs under the Comprehensive Communities Program grant, a network of services was formed in three of Boston's most troubled neighborhoods. The network is a partnership of many of Boston's youth service organizations and city agencies to address teenage runaways, dropout prevention, mentoring, job training and placement, tutoring, and building leadership skills. A police officer who comes across a youth in need of services calls the social worker or a District Community Service Officer, who then makes the appropriate referral to the network provider agency. From YSPN's implementation in June 1996 until September 1998, more than 500 youth had been referred by officers.

Alternatives to Incarceration Network (ATIN)

The network links various State and local criminal justice agencies, including the district courts, to Boston service providers. This network is supported by the Comprehensive Communities Program grant. Individuals enter ATIN as a condition for their sentence deferment or as a condition for parole or probation. Youth offenders receive counseling, substance abuse treatment, job skills training, and monitoring services.

Safe Neighborhood Initiative (SNI)

This initiative offers community residents the opportunity to work with law enforcement and government officials to identify and address neighborhood issues using SNI advisory councils and subcontracted programs. The Office of the Attorney General administers the program, which began in 1993, in cooperation with the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, the mayor's office, and the police department. SNI targets four high-crime, low-income neighborhoods. Its revitalization efforts include the organization and education of local merchants, job training programs, expedited city services, and a municipal priority to rehabilitate abandoned property. SNI also supports expanded hours for community-based youth centers, counseling services for children in domestic violence situations, a Child Witness to Violence Project, a Vietnamese police liaison who mediates gang disputes and conducts school presentations, gang dispute mediation by the Dorchester Youth Collaborative, small business training, an SNI prosecution team, voluntary business closures to avoid late-night crowds, a drug education program for youth, and a law student project that recommends ways to reduce drugs, prostitution, and crime. Funding comes from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, which recently approved a new 4-year grant.

Summer of Opportunity

In 1994, the Boston-based John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Company began providing financial support to an 8-week summer program that pays urban youth a weekly stipend while providing them with classes, field trips, and a real-world internship at Northeastern University or John Hancock. The internships teach youth leadership and life skills, including conflict resolution and time management, and also assign mentors. Youth are referred by the antiviolence unit of the police department. Many program graduates complete high school and go on to college or obtain employment.


Since Operation Ceasefire, the Boston Gun Project, Operation Night Light, neighborhood policing, tougher youth offender laws, and expanded prevention and intervention programs went into effect, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of homicides in the city of Boston. The table presented below illustrates these results. This reduction in homicides and youth homicides cannot directly be attributed to any one of these programs but more likely is due to the cumulative impact of this comprehensive, multipronged approach.

Table 1. Homicides in Boston

 Age of Offender 
Year 24 and Younger 16 and Younger

*(first 8 months)

Other outcomes also resulted from these programs. First, citywide collaboration has now been institutionalized. For example, in reaction to the threat of recruitment of young Bostonians by the Crips and Bloods gangs, a group of police, probation officers, religious leaders, and streetworkers visited middle school students in their schools and homes before school ended in June 1998.

Second, as a result of these efforts, communities are now regularly consulted by public agencies in setting agendas for their neighborhoods. Finally, Boston has become a national model for youth gun violence reduction, and the Boston Police Department won an Innovations in American Government award from the Ford Foundation and KSG in 1997. Operation Ceasefire recently won the Herman Goldstein award for best program employing problem-solving strategies.

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