Police limit searches for guns
Opposition from residents is strong; Invited into homes without warrants
Globe Staff / March 25, 2008
Boston police officials, surprised by intense opposition from residents, have significantly scaled back and delayed the start of a program that would allow officers to go into people's homes and search for guns without a warrant.
more stories like this
The program, dubbed Safe Homes, was supposed to start in December, but has been delayed at least three times because of misgivings in the community. March 1 was the latest missed start date.
One community group has been circulating a petition against the plan. Police officials trying to assuage residents' fears have been drowned out by criticism at some meetings with residents and elected officials.
Officers may begin knocking on doors this week, officials said yesterday, but instead of heading into four troubled neighborhoods, as they had planned, officers will target only one, Egleston Square in Jamaica Plain, where police said they have received the most support.
Police would ask parents or legal guardians for permission to search homes where juveniles ages 17 and under are believed to be holding illegal guns. Police would only enter homes into which they have been invited and, once inside, would only search the rooms of the juveniles.
The goal, said Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the Boston Police Department, would be getting weapons off the streets, rather than making arrests.
But critics say that the searches are unconstitutional and that police will not guarantee that residents would face no criminal charges if guns or drugs were found.
Commissioner Edward F. Davis has been taken aback by the criticism. Davis promoted Safe Homes as a voluntary program that would help overwhelmed, frightened parents and guardians by removing guns from their homes without fear of prosecution.
"I would say that the police commissioner has been a bit surprised by those that are not in favor," Driscoll said. "We're genuinely trying to save lives."
But for many of the 100 people who packed the Roxbury Family YMCA last Thursday to talk about the plan, the goal of the program was overshadowed by tactics they called invasive and misleading.
"Police are like vampires. They shouldn't be invited into your homes," said Jamarhl Crawford, chairman of the New Black Panther Party in Roxbury, who moderated the meeting.
"Vampires are polite; they're smooth," he said in an interview the following day. "But once they get in, the door closes. Havoc ensues."
Other comparisons have been no more favorable.
"The community doesn't want this," Lisa Thurau-Gray, managing director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School, said at the meeting. She likened the police persistence to a sexual aggressor who refuses to stop assaulting a victim despite her pleas. "What part of no don't they understand?" she said.
Police officials have said the searches would be based on tips from the community, including neighbors, school officials, and even the parents of the child. The officers searching homes would be members of units that patrol schools and who have visited the houses of teenagers as part of Operation Homefront, which is meant to help build better relationships between troubled children and their families.
If police were to find a gun in a home, they would keep the discovery confidential under most circumstances, police have said.
more stories like this
Officers would not tell officials at the child's school or public housing authorities, unless they believed the discovery amounted to a "public safety emergency," which Driscoll said would happen if police found a plan to use the gun at school or a hit list.
A child would not be charged with gun possession if a firearm were found. But police have said that if the firearm were connected to a crime, charges against the child could be filed.
Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who has attended meetings about the plan, said those warnings are unnerving.
"People on the street may say: 'This is great. I'm letting them in,' " she said. "But those are the people I'm concerned about, because they haven't been educated about the hazards."
She said residents of public housing could risk losing their homes if police reported finding a firearm to housing authorities.
Supporters of the program said they are fully aware of the risks of the program and frustrated by the critics, who they believe are misinforming the public.
Police "would support any family that cooperated with the police and oppose their eviction," said Bob Francis, chairman of the Academy/Bromley/Egleston Safety Task Force, a neighborhood group that represents parts of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.
"There wouldn't be any report that that gun was found on the property," he said.
True-See Allah, a former gang member who now works for the Nation of Islam, said people who worry that their children may face a jail sentence if a gun is found should consider the alternatives.
"It's one year to 18 months versus trips to Mount Hope Cemetery every year," said Allah. "Eighteen-month sentence versus death."
His organization supports the program as long as police are honest about their motives, said Allah, assistant to Don Muhammad, minister of Muhammad's Mosque Number 11 in Dorchester.
Allah acknowledged that his group is in the minority within the community. "Sometimes doing the right thing is unpopular and I think that's where we are today," he said.