Police to search for guns in homes
City program depends on parental consent
November 17, 2007
Boston police are launching a program that will call upon parents in high-crime neighborhoods to allow detectives into their homes, without a warrant, to search for guns in their children’s bedrooms.
The program, which is already raising questions about civil liberties, is based on the premise that parents are so fearful of gun violence and the possibility that their own teenagers will be caught up in it that they will turn to police for help, even in their own households.
In the next two weeks, Boston police officers who are assigned to schools will begin going to homes where they believe teenagers might have guns. The officers will travel in groups of three, dress in plainclothes to avoid attracting negative attention, and ask the teenager’s parent or legal guardian for permission to search. If the parents say no, police said, the officers will leave.
If officers find a gun, police said, they will not charge the teenager with unlawful gun possession, unless the firearm is linked to a shooting or homicide.
The program was unveiled yesterday by Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis in a meeting with several community leaders.
“I just have a queasy feeling anytime the police try to do an end run around the Constitution,” said Thomas Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who now teaches criminology at Boston University. “The police have restrictions on their authority and ability to conduct searches. The Constitution was written with a very specific intent, and that was to keep the law out of private homes unless there is a written document signed by a judge and based on probable cause. Here, you don’t have that.”
Critics said they worry that some residents will be too intimidated by a police presence on their doorstep to say no to a search.
“Our biggest concern is the notion of informed consent,” said Amy Reichbach, a racial justice advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union. “People might not understand the implications of weapons being tested or any contraband being found.”
But Davis said the point of the program, dubbed Safe Homes, is to make streets safer, not to incarcerate people.
“This isn’t evidence that we’re going to present in a criminal case,” said Davis, who met with community leaders yesterday to get feedback on the program. “This is a seizing of a very dangerous object. . . .
“I understand people’s concerns about this, but the mothers of the young men who have been arrested with firearms that I’ve talked to are in a quandary,” he said. “They don’t know what to do when faced with the problem of dealing with a teenage boy in possession of a firearm. We’re giving them an option in that case.”Continued…
But some activists questioned whether the program would reduce the number of weapons on the street.
A criminal whose gun is seized can quickly obtain another, said Jorge Martinez, executive director of Project Right, who Davis briefed on the program earlier this week.
“There is still an individual who is an impact player who is not going to change because you’ve taken the gun from the household,” he said.
The program will focus on juveniles 17 and younger and is modeled on an effort started in 1994 by the St. Louis Police Department, which stopped the program in 1999 partly because funding ran out.
Police said they will not search the homes of teenagers they suspect have been involved in shootings or homicides and who investigators are trying to prosecute.
“In a case where we have investigative leads or there is an impact player that we know has been involved in serious criminal activity, we will pursue investigative leads against them and attempt to get into that house with a search warrant, so we can hold them accountable,” Davis said.
Police will rely primarily on tips from neighbors. They will also follow tips from the department’s anonymous hot line and investigators’ own intelligence to decide what doors to knock on. A team of about 12 officers will visit homes in four Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods: Grove Hall, Bowdoin Street and Geneva Avenue, Franklin Hill and Franklin Field, and Egleston Square.
If drugs are found, it will be up to the officers’ discretion whether to make an arrest, but police said modest amounts of drugs like marijuana will simply be confiscated and will not lead to charges.
“A kilo of cocaine would not be considered modest,” said Elaine Driscoll, Davis’s spokeswoman. “The officers that have been trained have been taught discretion.”
The program will target young people whose parents are either afraid to confront them or unaware that they might be stashing weapons, said Davis, who has been trying to gain support from community leaders for the past several weeks.
One of the first to back him was the Rev. Jeffrey L. Brown, cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, who attended yesterday’s meeting.
“What I like about this program is it really is a tool to empower the parent,” he said. “It’s a way in which they can get a hold of the household and say, ‘I don’t want that in my house.’ “
Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, whose support was crucial for police to guarantee there would be no prosecution, also agreed to back the initiative. “To me it’s a preventive tool,” he said.
Boston police officials touted the success of the St. Louis program’s first year, when 98 percent of people approached gave consent and St. Louis police seized guns from about half of the homes they searched.
St. Louis police reassured skeptics by letting them observe searches, said Robert Heimberger, a retired St. Louis police sergeant who was part of the program.
“We had parents that invited us back, and a couple of them nearly insisted that we take keys to their house and come back anytime we wanted,” he said.
But the number of people who gave consent plunged in the next four years, as the police chief who spearheaded the effort left and department support fell, according to a report published by the National Institute of Justice.
Support might also have flagged because over time police began to rely more on their own intelligence than on neighborhood tips, the report said.
Heimberger said the program also suffered after clergy leaders who were supposed to offer help to parents never appeared.
“I became frustrated when I’d get the second, or third, or fourth phone call from someone who said, ‘No one has come to talk to me,’ ” he said. Residents “lost faith in the program and that hurt us.”
Boston police plan to hold neighborhood meetings to inform the public about the program. Police are also promising follow-up visits from clergy or social workers, and they plan to allow the same scrutiny that St. Louis did.
“We want the community to know what we’re doing,” Driscoll said.
Ronald Odom – whose son, Steven, 13, was fatally shot last month as he walked home from basketball practice – was at yesterday’s meeting and said the program is a step in the right direction. “Everyone talks about curbing violence,” he said, following the meeting. “. . . This is definitely a head start.”
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com.