A Welcome Mat for Gun Searches

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Kieran Doherty / Reuters / Corbis

Confiscated handguns

In the coming weeks, Boston police will begin asking parents in several impoverished, high-crime neighborhoods to allow searches of their homes — without the need for warrants. The surprising reaction: many parents and community leaders are all for it. And that is making for an intriguing civil liberties debate.

Under the experimental program, dubbed "Safe Homes," teams of police officers assigned to Boston's public schools will hunt for leads on youths believed to have guns. Tips might come from neighbors, or even parents or guardians, who are often fearful of their own children. Three plainclothes officers and a clergyperson or community activist will show up at the youth's home. The officers will ask parents to sign a form allowing the search of the home, including the child's room. Weapons found in the child's possession will be seized, and no charges will be filed unless the weapon is linked to a violent crime. "This is an interaction between human beings, where common sense will prevail," Edward Davis, Boston's police commissioner, told TIME.

It is a risky endeavor for Davis. He was tapped to lead Boston's 2,200-officer force in October 2006 after having spent a dozen years as police superintendent in Lowell, Mass., a city with roughly one-sixth Boston's population. Davis arrived in Boston as the number of homicides and shootings were falling. However, a string of high-profile youth shootings gripped the city. The tipping point for Davis was last summer's fatal shooting of Liquarry Jefferson, just eight years old, by a seven-year-old cousin. "Every time I go to the scene of a crime and see a young kid who's been shot, it causes you to reflect on what you're doing, and search for best practices to test," Davis says.

In recent weeks, Davis rallied support for the program among several community leaders. Some of Davis' staunchest supporters have been black leaders, particularly ministers, who are desperate for anything that will quell youth violence. "There's a cry from the parents and neighborhoods to do whatever it takes to reduce this gun violence," says Emmett Folgert, executive director of the Boston Youth Collaborative, in the city's Dorchester neighborhood. Folgert says he supports the experiment with mixed feelings. Much of its success, he says, "relies on the integrity of individual police officers and their leaders, and so far, they've proven themselves to be trustworthy in the eyes of the community."

The American Civil Liberties Union swiftly assailed the program and announced plans to issue leaflets in several neighborhoods to inform residents about the potential ramifications of allowing police officers to search their homes. Jorge Martinez, executive director of Project Right Inc., a social service organization in the Dorchester neighborhood, asked the police department to require a defense attorney to be present at all searches and tell residents that such searches are voluntary. "Many of these folks are from third world countries, where anyone in uniform symbolizes oppression," says Martinez, referring to the Grove Hall neighborhood, home to a mix of African-Americans, Haitians, Dominicans and Cape Verdeans.

The ACLU's opposition, however, has failed to move many community residents in neighborhoods directly impacted. "I understand political correctness and the potential civil liberties risks. But until you have bullets flying over your head, I suggest you take your leaflets and keep them in the suburbs," says the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, interim executive director of Boston TenPoint Coalition, a group heavily involved in reducing gang violence, particularly among the city's black and Latino youth. Brown says he plans to walk with police officers during searches.

Some critics warn, however, that the "Safe Homes" experiment could potentially incite allegations of racial profiling. And there's concern that parents and children who refuse searches will face retaliation or unfair scrutiny from law enforcement and school officials. The program's track record, moreover, is not encouraging. "Safe Homes" is modeled on a program started in St. Louis in the mid-1990s. Early on, about 98% of St. Louis residents approached by police officers consented to searches of their homes, according to a 2004 U.S. Justice Department report. Guns were found in about half the homes searched, and an average of three guns were seized per household. But by decade's end, the program had failed, partly because of poor support from residents of high-crime neighborhoods, and the inconsistent way the program was administered by the police department.

If the St. Louis effort is a guide, there's little reason to believe the Boston program will significantly reduce the number of guns in high-crime areas, particularly where so-called "neighborhood guns" are routinely passed between friends and relatives. Boston police say they don't have an estimate of how many guns are in the hands of youth, although the department seizes about 700 guns a year. Davis says he hasn't set formal benchmarks to measure success. "But if I can get my hands on a dozen guns, I'll be very happy," he says, adding, "It'll be successful."