Harvard Kennedy School Researchers Partner with Boston Police to Quell Gang Violence

May 6, 2008
by Doug Gavel

Gang violence has exacted a pernicious toll on many Boston neighborhoods for many years. Gang-related homicides increased by nearly 160 percent in the city between 2000 and 2006. However, there are finally some encouraging signs that things are changing.

Boston Police, working with researchers at Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, have begun targeting gun violence hot spots in the city, reaching out to gang leaders and their members to help quell tensions and reduce the violence. This effort builds on the successful partnerships among criminal justice, social service, and community-based agencies developed during the 1990s in Boston.

These pro-active efforts on city streets have paid dividends: homicides declined by 11 percent in 2007, and shootings are down 40 percent over the past year.

Anthony Braga MPA 2002, lecturer in public policy and senior research associate at the Program, says violence prevention strategy must reflect the reality that gangs and their networks are “incredibly concentrated” in the city.

Less than one percent of Boston youth are gang members, Braga says, but gangs were responsible for 50 percent of all homicides and nearly 70 percent of shootings in the city in 2006.

“So the question becomes what do we do about this?” Braga explains. “Responses need to be concentrated and tailored. There is no one size fits all solution to gang violence problems. Approaches that blend enforcement, social service and opportunity provision, and community-based action have the best chance of creating safe neighborhoods.”

David Hureau (MPP 2006), a Program researcher and doctoral student in sociology and social policy, observes, “Kids caught up in the gang life have severely constrained options for responding to the countless sources of conflict woven into every aspect of their daily lives. The expectation is that even the smallest problem is resolved by violence. Interventions focused on mediating conflicts can be very effective at defusing cycles of gang violence because they provide alternatives to normative violent problem solving strategies.”

The Boston Police Department’s Safe Street Team initiative deploys groups of officers to gang hot spots in order to “try to change the dynamics of the place.” They form partnerships with residents, business owners, and young people. It’s the “retail side of community policing,” Braga says. “The police department is investing in the areas for the long haul instead of simply being reactive.” 

The Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management has established in 1980 at Harvard Kennedy School, with a research agenda focused on policing, prosecution, drug policy, youth violence, firearms trafficking, public defense, and community revitalization. It has worked with the Boston Police Department for many years on crime prevention, gang suppression and gun control projects with funding provided by the U.S. National Institute of Justice, Massachusetts Executive Office for Public Safety, the Boston Foundation, and the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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Image of Anthony Braga

Anthony Braga, lecturer in public policy and senior research associate, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management

"There is no one size fits all solution to gang violence problems. Approaches that blend enforcement, social service and opportunity provision, and community-based action have the best chance of creating safe neighborhoods," Braga explains.

Image of Harvard Kennedy School Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety, January 2008

Harvard Kennedy School Executive Session on Policing and Public Safety, January 2008