Making homes safer with safe homes: a look at the controversial way Boston attempted to reduce youth violence.

Author:Essinger, Jaclyn M.

"On March 27, [2007], an 11-year-old boy walked into the John P. Holland elementary school in Boston with a.44 caliber magnum handgun. The gun was taken out of his prepubescent hands before any violence occurred. On June 24, 8-year-old Liquarry Jefferson was needlessly shot to death by his 7-year-old cousin. Liquarry, who attended the Holland School, was one of the city's youngest victims in nearly a decade. Last week, a 16-year-old father with roots in Mattapan, stalked and killed a 17-year-old in broad daylight while horrified witnesses watched. These incidents send a profound message--the culture of violence is ultimately not about law and order; it is about the reestablishment of moral and cultural order and a search for new strategies that inform a meaningful effort to save a lost generation of urban youth." (1)


    Today, in the United States, a child or teenager is shot to death about every three hours--almost eight fatalities per day. (2) After a decline in violent crime during the 1990s, police across the country started to see an increase in violence; many officials attributed the uptick to a surge in violence committed by youth. (3) Beginning in 2005, Boston, Massachusetts, started experiencing a dramatic rise in its number of homicides. (4)

    In Boston, the number of shooting victims under age seventeen tripled over the last five years. (5) Boston began experiencing an alarming trend of youth-on-youth violence in late 2005. (6) The BOSTON GLOBE reported that 2006 was the "bloodiest" year in over a decade. (7) This increase represents a setback from the early 1990s when Boston had success working with youth to decrease violence. (8)

    Desperate to stop the youth-on-youth violence permeating the city, the Boston Police Department (BPD) unveiled the Safe Homes Initiative (Safe Homes) in November 2007--a program designed to reduce the number of weapons available to at-risk youth by confiscating firearms from juveniles without prosecuting them for illegal possession. (9) Under Safe Homes, the police targeted four neighborhoods in which they planned to seek consent from parents to search homes for illegal weapons. (10) Safe Homes is a community-policing based initiative that requires both participation and cooperation from members of the local communities. (11) However, the program was met with strong opposition from the communities it targets. (12) The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been especially vocal about its concerns, citing constitutional issues as well as its apprehension about the negative consequences that are likely to result from this program. (13)

    This Note analyzes whether Safe Homes, as it was originally proposed by the BPD, is compatible with the Fourth Amendment's guarantee to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Part II.A details Safe Homes, the program it was modeled after, and similar programs initiated in other cities. (14) Part II.B provides an overview of the Fourth Amendment principles applicable to Safe Homes. (15) Part III analyzes Safe Homes to determine whether it comports with constitutional standards and whether the constitutional standards adequately protect residents targeted by Safe Homes. (16) Next, this Note explores both the negative and positive consequences likely to result from Safe Home and argues that the initiative will not work without the support of the Boston community. (17) Further, even with community support, there are changes that could be made to ensure Safe Homes is conducted properly. (18)


    1. An Overview of the Programs

      1. St. Louis's Firearm Suppression Program

        In the late 1980s and early 1990s, St. Louis, Missouri experienced a significant increase in gun-related homicides, a majority of which involved young African-American males as the offender, the victim, or both. (19) In response to growing concerns over violence, the St. Louis Police Department (SLPD) implemented the Firearm Suppression Program (FSP) in 1994--an initiative aimed at reducing youth-related gun violence by confiscating guns from juveniles. (20) The FSP was innovative because of the SLPD's willingness to forgo arrest in return for the chance to take away a gun from an at-risk youth.21 Under the FSP, the SLPD, usually acting on community referrals, would knock on doors of juveniles' homes and request permission from their parents to search for guns. (22) The SLPD provided parents with consent-to-search forms stating the purpose of the program and acknowledging that if guns were found neither the child nor any other member of the house would be prosecuted. (23)

        The FSP was extremely successful during its first few years. (24) In 1994, the SLPD conducted between five and thirty searches each night, and guns were found and confiscated in half of the homes searched. (25) The SLPD believed that the program's ultimate success depended on the promise not to prosecute juveniles found in possession of illegal firearms. (26) However, the most important factor leading to the FSP's success was the support and cooperation of the St. Louis community. (27)

        The FSP was not without its critics. (28) The ACLU questioned whether consent to search would ever really be voluntary in the circumstances. (29) However, because the FSP received almost no criticism from the St. Louis community, the ACLU's concerns were largely ignored and opponents did not pursue any legal action to end the program. (30) Two years after the FSP began, the chief of police who established the program stepped down, leading to substantial changes and the eventual termination of the program in 1999. (31)

      2. The Safe Homes Initiative in Boston

        Boston modeled Safe Homes after the St. Louis FSP and planned to operate the initiative in the same manner. (32) Safe Homes was to be introduced into the four Boston neighborhoods with the highest reported levels of gun violence. (33) Under Safe Homes, a team of officers in civilian clothes and a community representative would knock on the doors of homes identified through tips and community referrals. (34)

        Like the SLPD, the BPD would explain Safe Homes to the parent and then ask the parent to sign a consent-to-search form. (35) The BPD stated that parents would be informed of their right to stop the search at anytime and that searches could be restricted to certain areas. (36) Officers would explain that choosing not to participate or withdrawing consent would not result in any adverse consequences. (37) District Attorney Daniel Conley backed the initiative by agreeing not to prosecute juveniles for possession of an illegal firearm. (38) Further, if other illegal items were found they would be seized and in most cases, no prosecution would follow. (39) However, the BPD made clear that they would not provide blanket immunity in all cases, as this would be an invitation to use Safe Homes to absolve criminals from all kinds of charges. (40)

        The BPD expected Safe Homes to be as popular and successful as the FSP. (41) To the dismay of the BPD, however, Safe Homes never took effect as envisioned. (42) Safe Homes was supposed to start in December 2007, but it was delayed several times due to strong opposition from the communities. (43) The long history of mistrust between the African-American community and the BPD played a large role in the resistance. (44) Finally, in March (2008), the BPD launched a drastically scaled back version of Safe Homes. (45)

        Instead of launching the program into four neighborhoods as originally planned, the BPD announced that it would only target Egleston Square in Jamaica Plain. (46) Safe Homes would not send police door-to-door to request consent to search; instead, citizens must call and request a search because the program is strictly voluntary. (47) As of May 2008, only two residents utilized the voluntary Safe Homes program. (48)

      3. Washington, D.C. and Oakland, California Attempt to Develop Similar Programs

        Boston was not the only city to try new tactics to curb the recent increases in youth violence. (49) Washington, D.C. and Oakland each attempted to initiate programs similar to Safe Homes during 20 0 8.50 However, much like Safe Homes, these programs have not been successful. (51)

        Following Boston's lead, in March 2008, Washington, D.C.'s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) launched the Safe Homes Safety Check Program (Safety Check). (52) Originally, the MPD planned to initiate searches by having officers knock on doors in designated "Focused Improvement Area[s]." (53) Community concerns prompted the MPD to quickly change the protocol; instead of making the program available citywide, the MPD would only conduct searches upon request from residents after an appointment has been made. (54) The MPD decided to implement the program in phases; however, as of June 2008, the MPD had still not implemented Safety Check because of community opposition similar to that faced in Boston. (55)

        In February 2008, Oakland City Council Members asked the Oakland Police Department (OPD) to develop a consent-to-search plan to confiscate illegal guns from juveniles in the city. (56) The OPD offered a plan similar to Boston's original Safe Homes program; however, the Oakland City Council rejected the plan. (57) Council Members were unhappy with the plan to have police officers knock on doors without a search warrant. (58) In April 2008, the City Council approved a six-month pilot of a redrafted plan, however the program was delayed due to disagreements about the city's method of advertisment. (59) Subsequently, the City Council withdrew voting on the program and decided not to schedule another date. (60)

    2. Search and Seizure

      The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that, "[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause." (61) The "touchstone of the...

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