Boston City Council Hearing on Safe Homes Initiative Sparks Lively Debate
BOSTON/Government Center - Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner (G/R - District 7) held a hearing Tuesday afternoon at Boston City Hall to solicit public testimony on his proposed resolution to modify the Boston Police Department's Safe Homes Initiative that currently allows police to visit homes and ask parents to allow a warrantless search for guns their children are suspected of possessing. Over 40 people were in attendance - about a dozen of whom gave testimony ... the majority in favor of the resolution. City Councilors Charles Yancey (D - District 4), Sam Yoon (D - At-Large) and Michael Ross (D - District 8) were also present - with City Councilor Stephen Murphy (D - At-Large) presiding.
The "Resolution Regarding the Boston Police Department" calls on the BPD "to either add blanket immunity from prosecution to its 'Safe Homes' program or ensure that the 'consent to search' is indeed voluntary by making police visits to homes informational only, with parents being asked to call them if they would like for a search to be conducted."
Yancey went "on record as opposing implementation of the so-called Safe Homes Initiative," saying that "there are ways we can accomplish the same goal without harming the constitutional rights of anyone." The other councilors present generally concurred.
Since its launch in 2007, the Safe Homes Initiative has become a flashpoint for controversy - with strong opposition from affected communities and civil libertarians (plus, interestingly, gun advocates across the country).
At the crux of the debate is the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which protects Americans against unreasonable search and seizure. Like all Constitutional rights, people have a right to voluntarily waive their right to its protections - if they give "informed consent" free from coercion.
Police departments in St. Louis and elsewhere in the country have been experimenting with programs like the Initiative - offering people various deals to waive their 4th Amendment rights in exchange for helping stop gun violence and other crimes.
Civil libertarians and neighborhood activists argue that the very act of police asking people for their consent to waive their rights is coercive - given that the new programs are almost uniformly being set up in poor communities of color, and the long history of police violence against such communities in many cities. They also say that most people - even if college educated - are not informed enough about their 4th Amendment rights to be capable of giving informed consent.
The Boston program has set up a 3 officer team from the BPD's Schools Unit that responds to calls to their 1-888-GUNTIPS hotline. The unit - which has access to translators - is empowered to visit homes where a student is suspected to be keeping a gun, and ask the student's parents to sign a form giving their Consent to Search and Seize. Police are then allowed to search the home and confiscate any illegal firearms found on the premises. Suspects are not supposed to be prosecuted merely for possession of a gun, nor are they supposed to have their school or public housing records compromised.
However, Assistant Suffolk County District Attorney Gerald Stuart pointed out, "if police find evidence other than firearms at a home, it cannot be expected that they will turn a blind eye."
For law enforcement officials, the sentiment was that the Initiative gives them a useful new tool in the fight against youth gun violence. The 3 main testifiers against the resolution - Sgt. Detective Mike Talbot, Deputy Superintendent Gary French and Stuart repeatedly emphasized that any imperfections in the program were worth it if it got guns off the streets.
"We truly care," said Talbot. "It's about the kids ... It's a search for peace. It's about getting guns off the streets and helping families ... It's not about prosecution.
What has drawn immediate criticism from area residents, however, has been the idea that few if any of these searches will be truly voluntary given people's fear of police. As Turner put it "In a situation where police are viewed as an enforcement group... in a situation where we have many people who come from countries where it can be life threatening to challenge police ... it's impossible to assume that that visit's not coercive."
The fact that the Initiative will only be focused (during what police are calling a "pilot phase") on 4 poor neighborhoods that are predominantly inhabited by immigrants and people of color - Grove Hall, Bowdoin & Geneva, Franklin Hill & Franklin Field, and the Egleston Sqaure/5Ws area - has drawn even more criticism.
"To be successful, this program would have to do it to everyone in Boston," Jamarhl Crawford, chairman of the Boston Chapter of the New Black Panther Party, said with a heavy dose of irony.
"People aren’t being told consequences," said Carol Rose, executive director of the Masschusetts Chapter of the ACLU, "despite police saying 'don’t worry, we won’t do x, y, z.'
"In fact," Rose continued, " the police are leaving themselves a lot of room to report to other authorities, for example, the U.S. Attorneys office for federal crimes, probation violations both state and federal, and civil penalties for which there is no immunity, such as eviction from housing - both public and private for potential drug offenses or weapon offenses ... and police also are not telling residents that they retain discretion to contact federal immigration authorities (ICE) which can lead to both unintended consequences for Boston residents and a breakdown in community trust vis-à-vis neighbors and vis-à-vis the police.
Other testifiers echoed these concerns. Yvonne Desmond of the Association of Black Social Workers said "Constitutional protections are so iffy for people in the black community that someone has to pretty much sign in blood that they will do no harm."
One community testifier, Talia Riveira of the Black Ministerial Alliance, disagreed, "I would rather get the gun out of the hand of the kid than let the kid play with a gun and kill himself." But she was alone among her peers in that sentiment.
"Everyone's against gun violence, " said Ronald Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association, a longtime Washington DC police officer, and a community policing expert, "but to take a program like this is kind of like what happens in springtime ... hay fever and allergies ... some people will buy medicine to suppress the symptoms, but the only way to deal with this is to suppress the cause."
At the conclusion of the hearing, many testifiers headed over to Freedom House in Dorchester to participate in a "Community Speak-Out: Come Get Your Rights On! What You Need to Know About Police Searches."
The resolution will be voted on by the full City Council at some point in the near future.