The Question is the Key

Today and tomorrow many folks will make predictions about what is to happen in 2014. Most will be wrong. We can, sadly, make one prediction that is a mortal lock to be correct. Our urban homicide maps will look EXACTLY the same in 2014 as they did in 2013…and 1994…and 1965.  Overlay homicides for the past 50 years on your city’s or town’s map and watch the data points converge.

Boston is as good an example of this as any. Since the cultural change in its policing strategy that is the “Cease Fire” movement, Boston has brought its mean (in all of that word’s denotations) number of homicides down from about 100 (1965-1996) to about 50 (1997-now).  The low point was 16 straight months of double-digit body counts, September 1989 to February, 1991.

As of December 30, 2013 the annual total was 40. And PC Bill Evans shows the same morality and compassion as his big brother Paul when he says that no one celebrates 40, because that means 40 dead humans and “40 grieving mothers.”

Overlay the homicides and see the dots converge along the Blue Hill Avenue Corridor from Dudley Street to the Milton town line.  Because Boston Police learned this and a lot more, they have played a catalytic role in reducing the carnage.  They have been able to be effective in reducing homicides because more than just about any other institution they have worn down the cognitive and physical boundaries of race and institutional roles.

Questions are technologies.  Everybody from Aristotle to Einstein to Belichick has used them as such. They came up with news ways to understand the universe and to use 4th down.  Understand the right questions to ask and new vistas open up.  Usually the questions are lying right there on the ground around the silos of role ideology in which criminal justice and other institutions operate.  I’m a cop, you’re a probation officer, you’re a minister.  I’m black or white and I can’t be expected to be effective with black or white kids.

But if the right people bust out or are deliberately liberated the cognitive biases, that stunted our thinking, melt away. That’s how we got the transistor from Bell Labs.   Visionary leaders forced the materials people and the theoretical physics people to bump into each other every day.  With crime it was cops, POs and clergy venturing out into what was then the risk-ridden territory where no one was in charge. Anything was possible, including making a reputation-ruining, thorough-going fool of yourself .  With the knowledge they shared in corridor conversations, on street corners and in coffee shops they changed the questions.  They started asking themselves, how do we prevent the next young person from getting hurt or killed?  

Clearly, policing has taken the first generation of this movement as far as it will go.  What can change in 2014 are the questions.  We can get even more compassionate and curious about the who, what, how and when (and maybe even some why) that drive the mayhem and misfortune along the Blue Hill Ave. corridors of our nation.  We have some helpers.  Andrew Papachristos at Yale has an analytic tool called social networking.   It is a big solution waiting to go big.  www.papachristos.org.  His friends at the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College, David Kennedy’s and Jeremy Travis’s outfit, are learning more every day from around the US.  www.nnscommunities.org.

Sábháilte agus Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh!   Have a Safe and Happy New Year!

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About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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