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Boston's Community Disorders Unit Successfully Tackles Racially Motivated Crime

In the mid 1970s Boston had a major problem with racial assault and it seemed to be getting worse. Much of the problem centered on the newly integrated neighborhoods or public housing developments. Harassment of African-Americans living in predominately white public housing developments became a major public issue in 1978. Racial assaults took many forms: racial epithets painted on the outside of homes, broken car windows, threatening phone calls, intimidation, physical attacks and even arson. Local media, community leaders, and activist groups played a significant role in focusing attention on the problem. In the summer of 1978, internal and external forces combined to bring about significant changes in the way the Boston Police Department dealt with racially motivated crimes. What had been unacknowledged and ignored became officially visible and a high priority for investigation.

An inquiry requested by the police commissioner revealed a persistent and compelling pattern of racial violence. Victims felt that the police were insensitive to their plight and by their indifference sided with the attackers. The characterization of racially motivated incidents as mere "vandalism" ignored the symbolic and aggregate impact of these crimes - creating ill-will among racial groups and strengthening the image of Boston as a racially troubled city. Fear and actual violence from the attacks, coupled with police inaction, had the effect of forcing many minorities to move from areas that were predominately white and kept still others from moving into these areas. It was clear that police response to this problem was inadequate and something had to be done (Crime and Delinquency, April 1986).

Moved by these findings, the Police Commissioner officially created the Boston Police Department's Community Disorders Unit (CDU) in April of 1978 to coordinate the Department's investigative activities related to reported bias motivated criminal incidents within the City of Boston. The CDU was the first police unit in the nation that specialized in the investigation of bias motivated criminal activity.

The Department's Community Disorders Unit (CDU), which is based in the Office of the Police Commissioner, is responsible for the coordination of the Department's investigative activities relating to reported bias motivated criminal incidents, also known as "community disorders", within the City of Boston.

The Police Commissioner's special order that created the CDU established departmental policy regarding the handling of community disorders, and outlined procedures to be utilized in the identification, classification, and investigations of such incidents. The purpose of the CDU is to reinforce the Department's policy that all citizens, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, disability or sexual orientation can be free of violence, threats, or harassment in living, working, worshipping and traveling throughout any neighborhood in Boston.

Definition

A community disorder is defined as a conflict which disturbs the peace, and infringes upon a citizen's right to be free from violence, threats or harassment and intimidation. These disorders can be classified into the following two areas:

All crimes that are committed where there is evidence to support that the victim(s) were selected in account of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or handicap, or incidents and situations precipitated by bias motives.

All incidents and situations where there are concerted efforts by a person or group of persons to deprive any other person(s) of free access to any neighborhood or community within the city, or any right secured under the U.S. or State Constitution or provided by statute.

Duties

The CDU duties include:

Monitoring, reviewing, and coordinating the Department's response and investigative efforts concerning possible Civil Rights violations.

Analyzing patterns of hate and bias motivated conflicts in Boston's neighborhoods. CDU detectives meet with neighborhood groups and leaders to discuss public safety problems and provide counseling and/or referrals for victims or violence or harassment.

Developing strategies to prevent future acts of violence and harassment.

Conducting Civil Rights training for police officers, prosecuting attorneys, housing authority employees, and tenants.

Measurements of Effectiveness

The CDU measures its effectiveness both quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitatively, the CDU has seen a decrease in the number of reported bias related crimes. Additionally, the CDU has a high conviction rate of cases brought to trial. Qualitatively, the CDU looks to the community for ongoing assessment. CDU detectives maintain an extremely high level of professionalism, fairness and concern for victims that translates into high community approval. City residents know that the CDU investigates potential civil rights violations very thoroughly before making a determination or charge. They are fair to both the victim and the offender, not downplaying minor incidents or dismissing victim's concerns and feelings, nor quick to bring a civil rights violation charge against an offender. The CDU is effective because it is a "color blind" unit. Minority investigators can work in an all white community while on the flip side, white investigators can work in minority communities with the ability to be sensitive to the community's cultural, ethnic and racial differences.

Financing of Program

The CDU is comprised of one lieutenant detective, three sergeant detectives, 12 detectives, one civilian clerk, and two part-time civilian interpreters. Presently, the CDU is funded through the Department's operating budget. Additionally, during 1998, the CDU received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that paid for proactive and reactive investigations of civil rights related crimes on Boston Housing Authority property and for community outreach.

Community Involvement

Proactively, the CDU will address any community group, church group or community-based organization that invites the CDU to speak to them. The CDU will give an overview of the unit and the purpose of its existence, define what a civil rights violation is, give an overview of people's rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution, outline what a civil rights violation investigation looks like, and explain what they can and can't do as it relates to the law and their investigations. Additionally, the CDU has created a Civil Rights curriculum that CDU detectives teach to middle and high school students. Reactively, the CDU will address the community after an incident has taken place in the hopes of educating the community about civil rights violations, gather information about that specific incident, and inform the community about the investigation, without jeopardizing the integrity of the investigation.

Major Lessons

The Department has learned many lessons since the inception of the CDU twenty years ago.

The Department needs to send the message that the investigation of the violation of people civil rights is important to the department and that the Police Commissioner takes those investigations very serious. This message can be sent by placing the unit directly under the Police Commissioner on the organizational chart and establishing a direct reporting system to the Police Commissioner.

Investigations of bias related crime need to be specialized.

Spell out, through detailed rules and regulations exactly what the Department requires of the unit that investigates bias related crimes. The rules and regulations should spell out exactly the departments response to these incidents from the incident to the closing of the case.

Investigators need to be attentive and sympathetic and should receive extensive training on civil rights violations and the investigation of bias related crimes.

Investigators must be very thorough on every case even if the case seems minor or trivial. The victim of a bias related crime does not feel that the violation of their civil rights is trivial, no matter how minor the crime may appear to the police. The investigator should leave his/her business card with the victim inviting them to call at any time when their is a problem and the investigator should make proactive follow-up calls to check in with the victim to fill them in on the investigation or to inquire if there have been any additional problems.

Collaborate with the district attorney's office. Talk with a district attorney before charging the offender and have them review the case in order to ensure that the investigators have completed a thorough investigation and that there is enough evidence to bring the case forward. Additionally, investigators should be aware of the seriousness for all those involved, including the offender, of charging someone with a civil rights violation. Do not take the charge lightly, make absolutely sure that a civil rights violation exists before charging someone.

Investigations need to be strictly supervised and supervisors should review all cases before they are closed or brought forward to court. The paperwork that investigators use should be standardized so all paperwork is consistent across investigators.

Involve the community both proactively, through education and reactively to gather information about criminal incidents.

Train all department employees, both sworn and civilian about bias related crimes and the seriousness of them.

For more information about the Boston Community Disorders Unit contact:

Lieutenant David R. Aldrich
Boston Police Department
Community Disorders Unit
One Schroeder Plaza
Boston, Massachusetts 02120
617-343-4527
617-343-4780 fax

This article is part of The U.S. Conference of Mayors COPS Program publication Best Practices to Promote Tolerance and Respect for Diversity, funded by a grant from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice. To find out more about The U.S. Conference of Mayors COPS Program, contact Kathy Amoroso at 202/861-6723.


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