Kids with Guns

How agencies have made strides to get guns out of the hands of juveniles.

In June of this year, a gun buyback initiative in the Dorchester region of Boston, Massachusetts, collected 92 working handguns within a day and a half. A mother gave up two guns belonging to her son, which she had found hidden in the boy's socks.

This is only the latest of many attempts to get guns out of the possession of today's youth. From 1990 to 1994, there were 540 homicides in Boston, and of that number, 326 victims were under the age of 24.

In 1997, a study by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) revealed nearly 6 percent of students in grades nine through 12 carried guns.

Lights out

Bill Stewart III, the assistant chief probation officer for the Boston Municipal Court, Dorchester Division, has seen this violence firsthand. In his three decades working on the streets, he has been on each side of the spectrum — from taking kids in for violation of their probations to encouraging them to keep on "surviving" and befriending those who have no one else to turn to.

"We owe that child the right to grow up to be the best that he can be," Stewart says. "If there's a 5-year-old that can't come out of his house because of the group on the corner, that's not right. I'm going to take that group out, because that five-year-old kid is my boss."

The appearance of crack cocaine on the streets in the late 1980s surged the formation of street gangs. "They organized to sell their crack," Stewart explains. "And with the crack came cash, and with the cash came turf. Once you establish turf, you have to protect your turf."

The Boston Police Department started its Anti-Gang Violence Unit in the spring of 1990. In 1992, it began paying closer attention to what other offices of the department, as well as non-police sources, could offer as far as information into the inner workings of the street gangs. Thus, Operation Nite Lite, still in effect today, was born.

Probation and police joined forces, took to the streets during the evening hours and began a mission of making probation violators wish they weren't in violation.

Through this relationship, and some research, Stewart found out he had more power than a police officer when it came to working with youthful offenders on probation, especially in regards to searching property and making arrests. He could search or arrest based on reasonable suspicion versus probable cause. He likes to leave mints on the probationer's bed, along with his business card.

Previously, the police had been enforcing terms of probation, but "we didn't talk to the police, so why should they enforce our terms of probation?" Stewart remarks. "We were chasing our tail. We were a system in name only. Over the last 16 years we have grown up."

The police and probation officers started doing curfew checks, targeting juveniles and young adults up to the age of 24, those most likely to do the shooting, or be shot.

"Don't for a second think we knew what we were doing," he says. "We were Indiana Jones, making it up as we went along. And that's what we did, because we had no benchmark."

In the Dorchester court alone, in the first year of Nite Lite, commitments for violations of probation increased from 200 to more than 700. Any term of probation that was violated was reason for arrest.

On the first night of Nite Lite, November 12, 1992, within 5 minutes into the ride, Stewart responded to a shooting scene with the police. A local boy asked him what he was doing there at night, and with a cop of all things? He responded, "I'm riding with 5/0 (police)." The local kid didn't think much of it; it was "foul shit"— not fair. He was used to seeing him only on the 8:30 to 4:30 shift. "That comment made the program," Stewart remarks.

Another part of the Boston Strategy, which the overall project became known as, was meetings with gang members, known as Operation Cease Fire, a gang suppression initiative.

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