EGLESTON/JACKSON SQ.—The Boston Police Department (BPD) has chosen JP neighborhoods as the testing grounds for a controversial program focused on minors that will offer limited immunity if adults give police permission to search their homes for firearms.
The program, known as the Safe Homes Initiative, was originally meant to be unveiled in three other city neighborhoods in addition to Egleston: The Franklin Hill/Franklin Field and Bowdoin Street/Geneva Avenue neighborhoods in Dorchester, and the Grove Hall neighborhood in Roxbury.
But those plans were scaled back in the face of strong community opposition to what some have described as warrantless searches.
In a Gazette interview, state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson, who represents Egleston as well as most of JP and other neighborhoods where Safe Homes has been proposed, said she thinks the plan will only exacerbate “a real and deep-seated distrust of police by the community.”
At a press conference at the Bromley-Heath Housing Development on March 27, BPD Commissioner Ed Davis said the area was chosen as the pilot site because, “The community expressed interest in the program.”
The plan, he said, is to “work out the kinks here…If it is successful, in a couple of weeks we will go into other neighborhoods,” Davis said.
Speaking at the press conference, Mildred Hailey, Executive Director of the Bromley-Heath Tenant Management Corporation, told reporters there is a long history of cooperation between the community and the police in the area.
Hailey joined other community and religious leaders, including representatives from the Boston Ten Point Coalition and the Black Ministerial Alliance, in supporting the program, but qualified her support by saying the mission needs to be broadened.
Clergy and community members will be present at the home visits along with police. The teams conducting the visits, Hailey said, will be in a unique position to determine what “root cause” issues families are facing, possibly including mental health and substance abuse issues.
“At least there will be a team in place and we can work with them,” she said. “We will work…to make sure there is follow-up.”
Driscoll said, via e-mail, that the program is being overseen by a community advisory board that meets at least every three weeks. The board is not open to the public, but is made up of both supporters of and opponents of the program.
While the BPD describes the pilot area as Egleston Square, it extends to Jackson Square and includes Bromley-Heath. Driscoll said the program’s coverage area is an approximately half-mile radius from the intersection of Columbus Avenue and Washington Street.
BPD Capt. Christine Michalosky, who heads the district E-13 police station covering most of JP, told the Gazette crime has been down in Egleston Square in recent months.
“Two years ago it was a hotspot. It goes up and down,” she said.
She credited community policing efforts like Safe Homes with “help[ing] reduce crime and reduce it as a hot spot.
In e-mail, BPD spokesperson Elaine Driscoll told the Gazette comparative crime statistics for the four neighborhoods identified for the Safe Homes Initiative were “not immediately available.”
The fact that the program appears to be less popular in more troubled neighborhoods “tells you something” about its prospects citywide, Wilkerson said.
Police were planning to start handing out informational flyers about the program in the Egleston Square neighborhood on the evening of March 27, Driscoll said at the press conference.
Participation in the program will be self-referral, according to the flyer. Firearms possession charges will not be brought against any member of the family if a gun is found, but charges may be brought later if a recovered weapon is connected to a crime. If other contraband is discovered in the course of a search, it “will be seized and no charges will be filed” the flyer says.
It also says “the visit will not be shared with immigration, the housing authority or the school department unless a public safety emergency exists.”
The full text of the flyer is available at www.bpdnews.com, and community members interested in inviting the police to search their home can call 1-888-GUNTIPS.
That number can also be used if a resident already knows of a gun in his or her house and wants to turn weapons over to the police “no questions asked,” according to the flyer.
Wilkerson said she applauds the BPD for making an effort to curb gun violence, and said she supports the idea of a voluntary home search program. But, she said, police officers have an obvious conflict of interest, and should not be involved in the searches.
“I think it is significant that [the BPD has] never used the term [full] immunity,” she said.
Instead of the police conducting the searches she said, clergy should be trained to conduct the searches and safely handle any weapons found.
“Clergy is doing it right now, informally. What they have said to me is they get a call from a family about once every other month,” she said.
If the police are removed from the gun retrieval process, Wilkerson said, the program would be able to offer de facto immunity similar to that offered by the city’s gun buy-back program, which allows people turn in guns anonymously.
Making a point similar to Hailey’s, Wilkerson also said members clergy would be in a better position to make sure appropriate follow-up is done after the searches.
Driscoll told the Gazette the BPD would be happy to send a representative to any upcoming community meetings to discuss the initiative.