The recent possible fatal shooting by police of a grieving, mentally ill 19-year-old in Dorchester has provoked responses ranging from blaming the police for brutally murdering a traumatized young man to blaming the 19-year-old for being a violent thug that got what he deserved.
While neither position is particularly well-informed, there are two important angles to this story that have not received much play.
The first is that in response to this incident the Globe quoted Police Commissioner Ed Davis as saying:
"Davis said the discussion was to focus on the root cause of violence that brought officers to the neighborhood in the first place. He said that only a fraction of the greater community is responsible for the violence plaguing city streets, and so those at the meeting discussed ways to reach out to families and to youth with jobs and summer programs."
This may not seem significant at first glance, but this is a HUGE development. Typically when incidents like this happen, city officials puff out their chests and talk about increased police operations and locking up bad guys and throwing away keys, as they did as recently as April 2nd. Then the press leave and within hours everything goes right back to the way it was because what actually caused the violent crime was not addressed. So to hear Commissioner Davis say this in response to a tragic shooting is an all-caps huge change in tone for the department. It shows that Mayor Menino was serious when he said he was going to try new things and it bodes very well for the future of this city. It shows that city officials are finally getting hip to what causes crime, always better late than never, and this is far more than can be said for other cities and towns affected by violence.
The second angle is how police practices are souring relationships in the community and leading to dangerous and growing levels of frustration and anger towards them, particularly in the wake of incidents like this one where police were confronted by angry crowds and are now receiving violent threats.
The New York City Police Department recently released statistics showing that in the last five years they have stopped and frisked nearly 2.8 million people. Of those 2.8 million, more than 88 percent were found innocent of any wrongdoing and released. Over 81 percent of those stopped were black or Hispanic.
Getting stopped by police when you have done nothing wrong and because you live in a poor neighborhood and are not white is a humiliating and frustrating experience. When it happens over and over again, it leads to a dangerous breakdown of trust and anger in communities subjected to it. This is why Henry Louis Gates was so angry when police came to his house and arrested him. And it is why most white people didn't understand what he was so mad about: they don't get stopped and frisked.
Manny DaVeiga was grieving for a friend he recently lost at a makeshift memorial. He was carrying a gun because the same people that killed his friend would have killed him if they saw him outside. This does not justify his carrying a gun, or any of the many bad decisions he made. But it was why he was carrying it. As soon as he saw police officers coming towards him, he knew he was getting frisked. Even if the police were not investigating a shooting, he knew he was getting frisked. Just as he and his friends always are, regardless of whether or not they have given police reasonable suspicion as required by the Constitution. And he knew that once he got frisked, he was going to jail for at least 18 months for carrying a gun. So he ran. He wanted to stay and properly mourn his friend, but he couldn't. So he ran. And the rest is under investigation.
I do not know what happened that day because I was not there. It seems the police were legitimately investigating a shooting and may have wanted to talk to Mr. DaVeiga. And though I can't comment on what happened out there that day, I do know with 100 percent certainty that what is happening in NYC is happening in Boston. I also know that residents here both young and old are sick and tired of getting stopped, frisked, harassed and overpoliced because of where they live and what they look like. This practice has been souring relationships between police and residents for years and it is only getting worse.
I am guessing that Mr. DaVeiga was a young man that had been "posted up" -- it happens so often there is actually a slang term for it in the community -- many times before. I imagine that sometimes he would have something on him, and most of the time he would not. And I am willing to bet that on that day when police approached him as he grieved for his friend, what went through his head was something along the lines of, "Damn, these police won't even let me be as I stand over the memorial of my dead 17-year-old friend." And as the frustration he felt over this fact, and surely from the many prior times he had been stopped and frisked, whether the police were justified in doing so or not, added to his grief, mental illness and everything else traumatic going on in his unimaginably volatile life, he was overwhelmed to the point of making the horrible decision to run, fire his gun and ultimately take his own life, as is alleged.
I am not laying blame for this incident. Nor am I justifying the actions of this very troubled young man. I am simply pointing out that when incidents like this happen, residents that are constantly stopped and frisked by police, and that do not trust them as a result, will have a hard time believing them when they say they were fired on first, whether or not it is true. They will have a hard time believing that the young man turned his gun on himself and took his own life, whether or not it is true. They will have a hard time believing anything the police say, which is why finding weapons or contraband less than 12 percent of the time is not worth the trust of the entire community.