How to heal: A look into Boston homicides and the aftermath of tragedy
Amid a nationwide dispute over gun control laws, homicide counts for the city of Boston rose last year, proving that deaths due to gun violence do persist. Compared to 40 killings in 2015 – a 15-year low for the state capital – there were 46 killings in the city last year, the Boston Globe reported; that’s a 15 percent increase in lives lost over a year-long period.
Despite this recent uptick in killings, homicide rates in Boston pale in comparison to those in large cities across the country; Chicago is often featured in news headlines and finished out 2016 with a total of 762 homicides. Boston’s comparatively low number may be the result of an increase in clearance rates for homicide cases, in survivor resources for families and friends of victims, and in preventative education implemented by organizations across the city and often in conjunction with the Boston Police Department.
An increase in clearance rates
The Boston Police Department solved 63 percent of homicides under investigation last year, a police spokesperson reported to the Boston Globe. The increase in closed cases follows a five year period – from 2007 to 2011 – when clearance rates reached just 47 percent; detectives had cleared only 148 of 314 killings. From 2012 to 2014, with funding from a grant from the US Bureau of Justice Assistance Smart Policing Initiative, more detectives worked on each case, interviewed more witnesses, and collected more evidence. Over that three year period, detectives cleared 86 of 151 killings, closing 57 percent of cases. The numbers increased again in 2015, with a 61 percent clearance rate.
The Homicide Unit within the Boston Police Department is made up of eight current case squads, one cold case squad and a team that investigates fatal collisions, according to the department’s website.
Resources for community members
In 1992, the funeral of a homicide victim turned violent when perpetrators of a gang-related shooting and stabbing made their way into Morning Star Baptist Church. The Boston TenPoint Coalition was established by clergy and lay leaders in the wake of this service turned shootout, with the goal of making violence prevention an integral part of life both within and outside the church. The organization aims to provide resources for Black and Latino youth, who are “at high risk for violence, drug abuse, and other destructive behaviors,” according to its website. Key to the success of the coalition’s work, per its “community cluster” approach, is collaboration with other institutions that are also committed to combatting high risk culture.
The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute was founded in 1994, just months after the tragic passing of the 15-year-old after which the organization is named. Brown was on his way to a Teens Against Gang Violence meeting when he was killed by a stray bullet from gang crossfire. Brown’s parents, Tina and Joseph, founded the institute with the goal to “teach young people the value of peace, focus on the assets in community, and transform society’s response to homicide.”
In her more than 20 years of experience as the president and CEO of the institute, Tina has founded the Survivors Outreach Services (SOS) program, has helped to establish the Family Resource Officer position within the Boston Police Department, and has drafted a collection of tools for families and friends of homicide victims, including “Always in My Heart: A Workbook for Grieving Children” and the “Survivors Burial and Resource Guide.”
Presumed a criminal
Though clearance rates are up and support systems for homicide survivors exist, a lasting impact on homicide rates in the city begins before tragedy strikes, Tina – of the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute – has said. In a recent interview, she recalled that – before the passing of her son – he had been questioned by a police officer who said he “fit the profile” of a gang member involved in a shooting. Even after her son was shot down, Tina was often asked whether Brown had been affiliated with gangs or had been involved with drugs. “Every family has a right to bury their loved one with dignity,” Tina’s daughter Alexandra said in a recent interview. She believes that a stigmatized view of homicide often colors society’s response and can get in the way of grieving properly. Tina and Alexandra refer to society’s often inadequate response to homicide victims and survivors as “secondary victimization.”
The voice behind statistics
Homicide Watch Boston is the Northeastern University Journalism School’s own news website reporting on murder in Boston. Though news updates as killings happen and original court reporting on ongoing cases comprise the majority of content, there is a void to be filled by the voices of survivors themselves; statistics and straightforward reports do not accomplish much in accurately exploring and explaining the aftermath of homicide for survivors. An interactive documentary, featuring audio from interviews with homicide survivors, video footage from programs for families and friends of victims, compelling data visualizations, etc. would reinvent homicide coverage as it exists for the city of Boston and act as a timely response to discussions about gun control.