New push set vs. crime in Talbot-Washington area

A joint law enforcement and community initiative to target gun violence and quality of life problems in one of the city's most crime-challenged corridors is ratcheting up its efforts this year. The Washington Street/Talbot Avenue Safe Neighborhood Initiative (SNI) has begun a series of community-wide meetings aimed at prioritizing hot-spots and coordinating a response between police, prosecutors and community-based organizations.

The SNI, one of several now in operation across the city, covers a slice of Dorchester that has seen some of the worst street violence in recent years. Its territory is bounded by Columbia Road to the north and Armandine Street to the south and stretches west to Blue Hill Avenue and east to Washington Street. The group brings together representatives of various city, state and federal law enforcement agencies, along with prosecutors, to meet monthly with residents, merchants and existing community groups in the area.

"The primary goal is to reduce violent crime," says Adam Gibbons, the project manager of the SNI. "With the understanding that crime is not just solved through suppression and prosecution but also through community wealth, resources and networking."

Gibbons, who lives in Dorchester just outside of the SNI's coverage area, was hired last fall to manage the initiative. The federally-funded group has had an active steering committee since May 2006, but - until Gibbons was hired - lacked a full time person to coordinate its activities.

Under Gibbons, who is based at an office at 450 Washington St., committee members hope that the group will now find its bearings and eventually have an impact on crime-related problems in the area.

"It's a big job. We're getting there. We're not a cohesive group just yet," says Joan McCoy, who leads the Community Improvement Association near Codman Square. "I know that we're there to help prevent, control and reduce violent crime, but we haven't yet addressed a strategy."

According to Gibbons and other SNI leaders, developing a consensus about precisely what the group is and what issues it should tackle is the first job of the new year. That process began with a Jan. 9 meeting held at the Perkins Community Center on Talbot Avenue. About 80 people attended the meeting, in which Gibbons explained the background of an SNI and broke the room into small groups to discuss common concerns. Also on hand to speak to the assembly were Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley and B-3 police commander Capt. James Claiborne.

Alison Carter Marlow, who runs ABCD's Dorchester Neighborhood Service Center on Claybourne Street and sits on the SNI steering committee, said it was a good first step.

"I think we did a really good job of reaching out to a wide spread of folks. It's important that people are talking to each other and are not so isolated," says Carter Marlowe. "We need to help the community vision what's possible. It can be depressing."

A second meeting is scheduled for Thursday Feb. 21 from 6-8 p.m. at the Boys and Girls Club, 15 Talbot Ave.

According to Gibbons, the Trotter Institute at UMass-Boston will be another new asset for the organization in 2008. The institute will provide technical support to the SNI, including fresh data on the demographics of the area.

"It's going to really help us to have academic partners who can produce consolidated information to understand who we are as a community in terms of not just our crime, but our many cultures and services," Gibbons said.

Jorge Martinez, who is the director of Grove Hall's Project R.I.G.H.T., says that his organization developed out of a similar SNI model launched in that Dorchester village more than a decade ago. The lessons from Grove Hall and other SNI models employed in places like Bowdoin-Geneva, Dudley Street and East Boston should prove helpful to the emerging one in Washington-Talbot.

The early months, Martinez says, may prove to be the most challenging.

"It's about getting the partners on the same page," Martinez said. "The community folks need to feel they have a valid voice and are on the equal footing with the law enforcement.

"It's one thing to want leadership, it's another to show you have the leadership and commitment. They need to be transparent and get their agenda onto the table and own whatever decisions they make."

According to Joan McCoy, that's still a work in progress.

"My personal hope is that somehow through residents we can help improve the quality of life and I think that is really what will make a difference in the crime stats," McCoy says. "I want to see us focus on the broken window theory- that when you're in a neighborhood with a lot of litter, crime follows."

Helping police and prosecutors focus on where to direct their resources is part of the discussion. But, the SNI will also have a direct role in building capacity through mini-grants that help existing agencies pay for jobs for outreach workers and other services. The so-called "weed and seed" hopes to permanently uproot criminal activity and replace it with a long-term alternative.

"People are seeing that violence is happening and the immediate gratification is to solve the case and put that person away. That's real and it needs to be emphasized," says Carter Marlow. "The seeding piece is much more powerful, because planting those seeds will mean children who might turn into would-be criminals can make good choices."

Adam Gibbons says that the community members, ultimately, will set the direction of the effort and have the largest voice in its decisions.

"There's no end in sight for this SNI and we are interested in developing a clear role for ourselves in the community in partnership with other community groups. We're very attentive to and committed to not duplicating what's out there, but rather augment what's out there, in addition to offering things that aren't quite out there."

The real difference, Gibbons says, is that the SNI creates a forum where "power brokers" meet regularly with residents to share information and strategize on solutions.

"The SNI has those power brokers at the table with residents," Gibbons says. "They can initiate a specialized, coordinated effort to address a specific problem. There's information in DA's office that they're not necessarily going to share with anyone, but when the DA is meeting regularly with the police and residents that they are then familiar with, it enables sharing of information and coordination of joint efforts."

"It's complex trying to connect various neighborhoods, but we're thinking long-term," said Gibbons. "This is a community that has struggled for 30 years. It's diverse, but it has been economically depressed for past two or three decades."