Back Row Seat: Riding with the Boston PD Gang Unit

“I think he might have a gun.” As the Boston police officer uttered those words, Berkeley Brown slid down deeper into her seat in the back of the police car. As a member of our student team working with the Boston Police Department’s Gang Unit, Berkeley was on a ride-along with some of the unit’s patrol officers.

While our entire team was excited about the prospect of a front-row seat to the officers’ daily work, those few words served as a tangible reminder of the complex and dangerous situations that the officers face every day.

     The team went on multiple ride-alongs to learn more about the day-to-day activities of patrol officers. Source: Google Images

 The team went on multiple ride-alongs to learn more about the day-to-day activities of patrol officers. Source: Google Images

Fortunately, the incident turned out to be a false alarm and all of the ride-alongs went on without a hitch. These ride-alongs represented our first exposure to the gang unit’s patrol officers, who make up a majority of the unit’s personnel. Unlike the detectives who write search warrants and process evidence, the patrol officers are the front-line of the unit, monitoring and responding to gang activity on the streets.

As officers navigate the fluid and complex nature of gang activity in Boston, they also have to navigate a variety of software systems and sources of information that can be particularly cumbersome during critical moments. These technological constraints echoed some of the similar themes we saw when learning about the warrant process, where access to reliable information can be the difference between life and death.

While the ride-alongs helped round out our understanding of the gang unit’s strategies to reduce gang activity and violence, a follow-up conversation with Daniel Mulhern, Senior Advisor to the Mayor, shed light on another objective of the unit that we had overlooked up to that point. Programs like Operation Exit aim to reduce and prevent gang affiliation, which the unit does by building trust and relationships with community members and coordinating with city departments and other community organizations. Working with former gang members and discouraging people from joining gangs in the first place (i.e. preventing feuds before they even start) is just as important as targeting existing activity in reducing the cycle of violence. Armed with this additional information, we were able to map our understanding of the gang unit’s various strategies to its primary objectives:

  The gang unit’s charge is to reduce gang activity and gang affiliation. Tactics vary based on their objective, and is the team’s interpretation of what occurs. For that reason, it may not be perfectly accurate.

The gang unit’s charge is to reduce gang activity and gang affiliation. Tactics vary based on their objective, and is the team’s interpretation of what occurs. For that reason, it may not be perfectly accurate.

Based on this view of the gang unit's activities, along with the information gathered from interviewing many different stakeholders, we zeroed in on several key insights:

  1. Location is key for effective policing
  2. Tremendous value is placed on analytic reports in order to keep officers safe
  3. Building relationships with community members is dependent on information sharing
  4. There is a need for user-friendly databases
  5. Entering a home is a high risk, low information environment

Each insight represents a unique area for our team to work on developing solutions for the gang unit. In order to figure out which areas and potential solutions to focus on, we plan to use the K-J method to focus on those where we can add value and have a meaningful impact. We’re excited to develop something that could make incidents like the one witnessed by Berkeley at least a little bit safer for the officers and detectives of the gang unit.

-Berkeley Brown, Daniel Goldberg, Francesca Ioffreda, Nami Mody, Ihsaan Patel