Kids with Guns

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.

In May of 1996, the first gang forum was held. Two groups, from Vamp Hill and Bowdoin Street gangs, were brought in to a courtroom, with 10 partners of the police and probation divisions seated up front. "I was the Phil Donahue," says Stewart. "We said, 'OK, here's the deal. You guys want to screw around — this is what's going to happen. Why? Because you don't stop. You just don't stop.'

"We sent a very explicit message to a very small percentage of offenders in the neighborhood. It's over. The violence stops now."

Within six weeks of the meeting, of the 36 kids in the courtroom, 18 were locked up. "We threw a blanket over those two streets like you wouldn't believe," Stewart remarks.

The number of kids on the street decreased immediately. Felon Final Jeopardy, is what he calls it. "The answer is home or jail. The question: where do you want to spend your time?"

What you see

Cracking down on gun violence wasn't the only thing the Boston Strategy can take credit for. It also allowed officers to see the kids involved in a different light, as a victim, not just a criminal.

"If you grow up in a garbage dump, you don't know what a tree looks like," says Stewart. "A lot of these kids experienced neglect and abuse."

The reality, he says, is that the police and probation officers can force the kids off the street, but they need to be checked on two hours later, because they'll have snuck out. Like Stewart says, the kids are forced home, but what is home? "Would you go back to a place where your mother's boyfriend beats you? Would you go back to a house where there are rats running around the kitchen?

"After you get there and see what these kids see, what you do is put your arm around them and say, 'I have a lot of respect for you because you've survived, every day, and because you're a survivor, I think we can do this a different way, but you've got to meet me halfway.' "

Sitting in Stewart's office, broken kids can be found. They are able to be real with him and not live up to any reputation given to them on the streets. "They're beaten kids," this mentor says. "Their body language tells you that life has beaten them."

Stewart works to provide assistance through jobs and social services, for them and their families. In one instance, a grandmother was left to raise her four grandchildren, one who was on probation. Stewart went to check on the kid's curfew and found his grandmother at the door. She asked why he was there, and he responded that he came to check on her grandchildren, whose mother was locked up as a crack addict.

"I want to keep them safe," Stewart told the woman. "She put her hand on my cheek and said, 'God will bless you for doing this,' " says Stewart. "That was the greatest gift I ever got, was her blessing, her acknowledgement."

Challenges of today

"We did our job so well that we created a power vacuum on the street," says Stewart. The children of the people put away in the 90s have grown up without anyone to keep them in check. Also, they are products of crack mothers and fetal alcohol syndrome. "They're a lot more difficult to deal with because they are more wanton and ruthless," he adds. "They're cold."

The youthful offenders locked up then are now being released into the public, but stronger and wiser. Jail has not always given them the "correction" they needed, but more often, contacts and insight into a bigger gang population. "They go do time with the guys from Los Angeles and Chicago, and come back having learned how to organize," says Stewart. "Now all of a sudden they're harder to get at."

It's the "Godfather" method, as he calls it. The original gang members are there, but running the group from behind the scenes. "Because now they've got a 17-year-old kid running the street for them," he says. "They'll wear this kid out, telling him to run up the street to the courthouse and cap off a couple rounds at the other crew, just as they have done recently."

Not only are the people more challenging, but economics has also changed the landscape in Dorchester and for the Boston Strategy. "The money has dried up," explains Stewart. "It wasn't replaced or the focus was shifted."

In 1999, there were 31 homicides in the city of Boston, compared to 152 in 1990. "I didn't lose a kid under the age of 17 to gun violence for more than 30 months," Stewart says.

In 2000, the homicide rate increased to 36 in the city. "What do the papers say?" Stewart asks. "They report 'The miracle is over.' At the same time, we had a change in leadership, followed by a five-year increase in gun-related homicides."

Last year, the homicide stat was up to mid-60s. The bad news, he says, is the number went up. "The good news is that it's still not as bad as it used to be, but it's not as good as it could be."

Stewart's message of success is uncomplicated: KISS — Keep it simple, stupid. "Don't try to be all things to all people. I know what I can do. I'll do that. You do what you do, and then we'll do it together. What are we trying to do? Stop the gun violence."

Spreading the system

The Boston Strategy model has found its way around the country, with similar programs being implemented and getting guns out of the hands of kids.

Now the largest city in Louisiana, Baton Rouge has had and recently been given its share of additional juvenile gun violence since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

Luckily, a progressive program has been in place for a while. In 1997, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) awarded four grants to implement the Partnerships to Reduce Juvenile Gun Violence Program. In addition to Baton Rouge, Oakland, California; and Syracuse, New York; were recipients.

As in Boston, city police and probation officers ensure the offenders' terms of probation and parole are being followed. Baton Rouge calls its program Operation Eiger. Named for a physical monument, "It's a tough program, but you can reach the peak," says Lt. Roddy Cantu, who supervises the police involvement in the program. Eiger is the highest peak in the Himalayan Mountains, tough to climb, but attainable with extra effort.

The city of Baton Rouge is divided into three regions, and each has an Eiger unit with three officers assigned to it. "We try to keep juveniles from obtaining firearms and bringing them into the schools, but the main problem is the access kids have to getting these weapons off the streets."

Each unit consists of a police officer, and one each juvenile and adult parole officer. The police presence comes from just about every division, including felony theft, major assaults, evidence, auto theft, etc. They all work overtime to help combat this juvenile gun problem, visiting approximately 10 individuals a night, per unit. The program runs five nights a week. "If we keep a closer eye on them, there's a chance they won't repeat a crime," says Cantu.

Wendy Sarner, with the Intensive Supervision Program, a division of the Department of Juvenile Services in Baton Rouge, agrees. "Ultimately, it's a chance to meet with the parents, to find out what's going on in the home, and we're also able to observe what's going on in the community," she says.

What's happening?

The information exchange that occurs on these ride-alongs is just as critical in Boston as in Baton Rouge.

An example given by Cantu shows how this exchange can benefit both police and parole. An officer with the School Drug Task Force of the Baton Rouge PD was dispatched to a school where a student was in possession of a knife.

When the officer arrived, the juvenile had already disappeared. The residence information the school gave the officer was wrong. It was then she turned to Cantu, who she knew was involved with Operation Eiger. It turned out the student was on probation and one checked on during the night visits.

"I was able to give her the address; she went and made the arrest," Cantu says. "This offers the police officers the opportunity to get information on these people."

"If there's anything we learned from the successes of the 90s is that you don't win forever," Stewart says. "You win for today. You've got to come back tomorrow."

He keeps coming back, as does anyone committed to taking guns out of the hands of children. He saves lives, both from guns and from the hopelessness these young people are living in.

For the mother who answers the door at night, Stewart only has to say, "There are two reasons I'm here. First of all, your child is on probation. If he wasn't, I can guarantee I wouldn't be here. Second, I know my son is safe. I would like for you to see your son safe at home too, instead of in jail. But, I would rather see him in jail than in a cemetery."