Streets of ire

This summer, cities across the U.S. have reported frightening surges in youth violence. After a decade-long reprieve, what's gone wrong?

Published August 25, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

In cities across the country, from Oakland, Calif., to Hartford, Conn., to Orlando, Fla., the story of summer 2006 has been one of kids and killing. Nashville, Tenn.'s police department reports that the number of teens arrested for violent crimes within the first six months of 2006 increased 20 percent over 2005; in Washington, D.C, 14 murders occurred in the first 12 days of July, and juvenile crimes in particular have risen 82 percent. In August, Oakland police reported that in 2006 nearly 30 percent of the city's homicide victims -- 26 out of a total 88 -- have been under the age of 19, a frightening sum that if it continues on pace, will easily double the number of last year's casualties. Even Boston -- a city whose effective offensive on youth violence during the 1990s earned the nickname the "Boston Miracle" and became a model for crime prevention across the country -- is facing a dramatic reversal of fortune, looking this summer less like an example of success than a cautionary tale.

Thus far criminologists have quickly quashed speculation of an impending return to the dangerous days of the '80s and '90s with measured reminders that no single year-to-year data shift should be seen as a serious harbinger, but as the summer wanes with the violence unabated, the chorus of concerned voices has begun to grow. While conceding that not every major American city has suffered a surge in violence, John Roman, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, says he believes a disturbing picture is becoming clear. "The particulars of what is happening are fairly constant around the country: There has been an increase in violent crime in everything except rape," he explains. "And there is enough of a deviation, and such a consistent picture across the country, that it is convincing that something larger has begun to shift." David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, agrees that this is a national issue. "If you have your ear to the ground, you hear the exact same things from all over the country. There really are lots and lots and lots of cities having big increases -- meaning 50 and 100 percent jumps -- and huge violence problems."

Underscoring this spike, in June the FBI released a preliminary report indicating that in 2005 national violent crime figures surged 2.4 percent and homicide rates nearly 5 percent, the biggest single increase in 14 years. With the brunt of violence now being felt in midsize cities like Indianapolis, Kansas City, Mo., and Milwaukee -- not New York, Los Angeles and Chicago -- and the nature of the violence seemingly ever more random, this new cycle of crime raises a question that's grown unfamiliar after a decade-long reprieve: Why is there suddenly so much blood on our streets?

To those living and working in these troubled communities, explanations are few, but the problem is plain -- and made personal by the tears of stricken loved ones and scared neighbors. Stanley Pollack, the executive director of the Center for Teen Empowerment, a community youth organization in Boston, says that almost every young person he has spoken to this summer has been touched personally by the crime -- and it's crime of a terrifyingly arbitrary sort. "While all violence is senseless, it does seem as though the level of irrationality has grown much greater," he explains. "It's five boys come into a shop, get into a fight and stab someone. A kid is shot coming out of his door for reasons he doesn't know by someone he doesn't know. One girl's brother is shot in front of a party trying to break up a fight -- this is a good guy who's not done anything wrong -- he's just trying to break up a fight." Pollack's program played an instrumental role in stemming Boston's youth crisis in the early 1990s, and he is haunted now by how much things have changed for the worse, and how fast. He says that statistical projections indicate that there will be more than 600 shootings in Boston this year -- and that's even more than the height in the 1990s. "So, yes," he warns, "things seem to be moving very quickly to the state they were 15 years ago."

According to James Alan Fox, a criminologist and Northeastern University professor who served as an advisor to the Clinton White House on issues of youth violence and now writes a column for the Boston Herald, those numbers are spiking thanks largely to one group: teens. "Cities have looked at the numbers and found that the lion's share of their increase is youth-related. It's hard -- I don't like words like super-predator because I don't think that's an appropriate characterization and kids are actually impulsive not predatory. But the fact of the matter is we do have more at-risk kids in the population now and we do have more youth violence; whether you like it or not, that's the situation." Following Fox's logic, just as Boston served as a model for what went right with crime-prevention strategies in the 1990s, the city's current troubles can serve as a model for what can go wrong when efforts are not sustained. "We got a little too comfortable; as the crime rate dropped precipitously in the 1990s a lot of people said, Well, we don't really have to work at this anymore, why not divert resources into other areas or maybe get some tax cuts," Fox explains. "Crime is not something we can eliminate, but something we must be prepared to control."

Fox's list of missteps is long. "Last month in the Senate there was a hearing about cuts in federal spending for law enforcement -- and there have been huge cuts," he explains. "The COPS [Community Oriented Policing] program has been drastically reduced and other programs have been entirely eliminated. We've also seen spending for youth-related programs decline." Add to that stew a Congress that has shown little interest in standing up to the National Rifle Association or enforcing gun control restrictions, and indeed it does begin to look like killer kids are not the real problem, but rather the complacent system that has shortchanged them. "People don't want to spend money," Fox says. "But a few extra hundred dollars in your pocket in terms of a tax cut is very little consolation if you're staring at the wrong end of a gun."

Mike Kozu, an organizer at Project Right, a grass-roots organization in Dorchester, Mass., says that feelings of frustration have become acute as community leaders have watched law enforcement allies be diverted into homeland security projects and school partnerships abandoned during budget shortfalls. According to a recent Boston Globe article, between 2001 and 2003, the Department of Education eliminated $13 million in after-school programs, and local state aid to education and police services was reduced from $800 million in 2003 to $625 million in 2004 and 2005. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the same time that Boston's ebbing tide of violence began to turn, with shootings rising to 286 in 2004 and to 341 in 2005. "Here in Boston, our police department is understaffed. Our school department is understaffed," Kozu explains, articulating a local complaint whose echo might he heard in countless cities nationwide. "When you are operating at bare bones like that," he says, "all people can do is react to 911 calls, not pay attention to the more painstaking tasks of community building."

In the 1990s, when thousands of teens were recruited to work in Boston's struggling inner-city communities, the city experienced a 90 percent overall drop in crime, and an even bigger decline in youth violence. When Stanley Pollack remembers that recent era -- one now seemingly long gone -- his voice sparks with anger. While he hangs on to the hope that the neighborhoods Teen Empowerment serves will recover with the help of renewed commitment and an infusion of cash -- some of which just arrived in Boston thanks to a multi-million-dollar emergency grant by Gov. Mitt Romney -- Pollack remains unconvinced that the state and federal governments have truly learned the lesson of the '90s. "Back then there was a deal made with the kids -- we told them we'll provide you with the education and services you need if you can help us change things for the better," he explains. "And because, if given the chance, most people want decent things for themselves and families, and if connected to and given opportunities to, will choose it, that strategy worked. But then we went and cut every reward we promised them."

Whether talking to criminologists, policymakers or community activists, the one idea all seem certain of is that as both consumers and creators of street culture, it is kids themselves who enable communities to turn back the tide of violence. This summer, when Pollack began hearing stories of 13- and 14-year-olds getting arrested, he saw an immediate connection with the cutbacks to Boston's city summer jobs program, which resulted in fewer employment opportunities for the youngest inner-city teens. Indeed, without legitimate jobs to provide an income or school work to structure their days, youth crimes often emerge as a sinister side effect of simple summer boredom -- and as a real-life illustration of the notion that idle hands do sometimes end up doing the devil's work.

"The fact is that if you want to get to high-risk youth you have to hire them," says Pollack. "If I went out into the neighborhood and just walked around, I would not meet these teens. But if I can get them into my offices with the possibility of a job, then they can give us those connections we need." That "asset-based" solution, pioneered in Boston over the past decade, works on two levels. First, by providing teens with concrete alternatives to crime in the form of legitimate, valued jobs and tangible rewards in the form of a salary; and second, by changing the lives and values of a seed pool of young people, who become bridges between the two communities with incentive to implant change and act as caretakers. Pollack says that in the '90s Teen Empowerment had almost 100 kids working for it, but now has only 13 -- a shrinkage that has been crippling to its mission. "The key before was that it was not a quick intervention and not just about police force," he explains. "There was an actual shift in youth culture that was really significant."

And as the headlines fill with stories of strangers shooting one another over minor slights and small-time crimes quickly escalating into brutal shows of force, making advances on that cultural front has never seemed so essential. In Miami-Dade County, the flood of young blood -- 24 teens killed in drive-by shootings or petty disputes in the past year -- as well as the culture that surrounds it, has left even funeral home workers in shock. In August, Willard Delancy, an assistant undertaker and veteran crime scene technician told the Miami Herald that he has been appalled by the displays of bravado he has recently witnessed. ''There was a time young friends of the victims would be grieving from the moment they set foot through the door of the funeral home,'' he told the paper. "Now they come in with that ego strength. You hear 'em saying, 'Look at my dawg, look at my boy!' It's like they're proud."

Though David Kennedy doesn't believe that that behavior -- which he calls a "thug-ethos" -- is actually new, he agrees that the most troubling part of the picture we see today, and what makes it of national import, is how seamlessly that destructive set of attitudes has begun moving around the country and more broadly out into the culture. Stanley Pollack, having witnessed up close the way this script of violence plays out, puts it in starker language. "When people's understanding of their lives is that they are hopeless -- and they're already feeling disrespected on a daily basis -- almost anything can set them off," he says. "And if kids know it's dangerous out there, they'll start carrying a weapon -- because if someone's going to shoot you, you shoot first."

By Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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