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 (link to Blog Post # 2), 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

Don’t Knock Down the Wrong Door

There are a lot of questions you can ask about an address: Who lives at the address? Who doesn't live there, but is a frequent visitor? Are there children in the house? How many rooms are there? Is there more than one level? Is the door even marked? The questions are endless, but the answers are sparse and scattered.

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Now, imagine you’re trying to answer all of these questions, and you can’t be wrong.

That’s just one of the challenges that the Boston Police Department Gang Unit faces when ensuring a search warrant is successfully executed.

Because of these challenges, detectives in the Boston Police Department Gang Unit spend much of their time gathering information. Often this involves consulting past search warrants or talking with confidential informants who have visited the sites under investigation.

These past few weeks, we’ve focused on learning how gang unit detectives answer important questions before executing a search warrant. The biggest takeaway from our conversations is that the job of police officers in the gang unit is dynamic, multi-faceted, and often high stakes. According to Sergeant Detective Jay Broderick, “every investigation is fluid.” Following a regimented process for each investigation would never work, because each case presents different challenges. But, regardless of the sources used to carry out an investigation, Sgt. Broderick says “the last thing you want to do is knock down the wrong door.”

A key source of information to Sgt. Broderick and other detectives in the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC). In the words of Ryan Walsh, Deputy Director of the BRIC, much of their work can be described as “journalism for law enforcement.” Each day starts with a 9:30am information-sharing conference call between every department and district in the area. By 4pm, the BRIC consolidates information about recent gang activity and officer safety alerts into a report which is disseminated via email to all police officers citywide.

In addition, gang unit detectives often request information from the BRIC. This might include structured information like photos of a suspect or names of people with whom a suspect has been arrested. But often detectives need more unstructured information, such as relationships between gang members, or what hats members of certain gangs wear to identify themselves. This unstructured information is difficult to systematize, and detectives often rely on individuals at the BRIC to relay this information when they need it, e.g. when they want to understand the relationship between gang associates.

Across both the gang unit and the BRIC, a common challenge is hardware and budget. BRIC analysts voiced a desire for an internal knowledge management system, but acknowledged that upgrading their technology to allow it would be costly. Similarly, Sgt. Broderick wondered whether some issues would be solved if the unit was equipped with more iPads.

While hardware and budget issues are beyond the scope of this course, they are incredibly helpful constraints for us to consider as we narrow in on a problem we can solve. This week, our objective is to learn about how that data is used by detectives and patrolmen on a daily basis, both on and off the streets. Through ride-alongs and interviews with detectives, we hope to hone in on a tool that will make the gang unit detectives’ jobs easier, more efficient, and, ultimately safer for everyone involved.

 

 

 

 

 

One is Too Many and Zero is Our Goal

In 2016, Boston had 47 homicides, a low number by historical standards. But for Gerard Bailey and Daniel Mulhern, the Deputy Superintendent of the Field Support Division at the Boston Police Department and the Senior Advisor to the Mayor, respectively, “one is too many and zero is our goal.”

Last Friday, our paths crossed with Gerard and Daniel in Harvard Kennedy School Professor Nick Sinai’s Technology and Innovation in Government course. Our team is one of five in the class matched with clients at all levels of government and tasked with helping them solve a problem. Gerard and Daniel lead the Boston Police Department Gang Unit, our team’s client. At our first sit-down with them, we learned that there are about 150 documented gangs and 3,500 young people involved in gangs in Boston. Around 750 firearms were removed from communities last year – 150 by the gang unit.

Clockwise from far left: Daniel Mulhern of the Mayor’s Office, Francesca Ioffreda, Daniel Goldberg, Ihsaan Patel, Namita Mody, and Berkeley Brown.

Clockwise from far left: Daniel Mulhern of the Mayor’s Office, Francesca Ioffreda, Daniel Goldberg, Ihsaan Patel, Namita Mody, and Berkeley Brown.

The gang unit’s goal is “to reduce the criminal activity and anti-social behavior of youthful offenders and youth gangs through directed and community-based policing strategies.” The unit, also known as the Youth Violence Strike Force, must balance multiple goals, including developing an understanding of and respect from the community while simultaneously protecting the safety of the officers and the public.

Currently, our team’s objective is to increase the speed of information gathering in the unit, but until we start speaking with the detectives, we won’t know for sure. What we do know is that our solution must take into account the utmost safety, security and efficiency for not only the detectives with whom we will be working, but the City of Boston as a whole.

And while the class’s title includes “technology,” our solution may not be entirely technology-based. In fact, it might not be very technical at all. What’s most important is that our work is guided by the tech world’s best practices: intense focus on the product’s user, as well as rapid testing of our hypotheses regarding the user’s experience. In this case, the “users” are the police officers for whom we design our solutions.

The Team

Based on our diverse backgrounds and interests, we were all paired with the Boston Police Department (BPD) Gang Unit. Below is a little more about the team:

Berkeley Brown (College ‘18) is a Social Studies concentrator at the College who serves in leadership roles within Harvard’s student government, Peer Advising Fellows program, and Harvard Alumni Association. She previously worked as an associate at TurboVote, a non-profit dedicated to increasing voter turnout. She is excited to work with and build solutions for the BPD this semester.

Daniel Goldberg (MPP/MBA ‘19) previously worked as a management consultant to public school districts across the US, where he helped superintendents improve student outcomes while also effectively managing resources and operations. He’s excited to learn from the Boston PD.

Francesca Ioffreda (MPP/MBA ‘17) previously worked as a management consultant across multiple industries and countries. She is passionate about city government and has worked with Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and Mayor Landrieu in New Orleans. She is excited to work with the Boston PD and support this important project.

Namita (Nami) Mody (MPP ‘18) was previously a product manager and project manager at DoSomething.org, where she improved the efficiency of internal systems and led the organization’s data organization and accessibility efforts. She has an affinity for internal users and processes, and is looking forward to learning how the Boston PD works behind the scenes.

Ihsaan Patel (MPP ‘18) previously worked as a senior finance manager for Greenlight Planet, a social enterprise selling solar lamps to unelectrified communities across the developing world. He is excited to help build something useful for the Boston PD.

The five members of our team are incredibly keen to spend the next eleven weeks speaking with detectives from the BPD Gang Unit and learning about the ins and outs their investigation practices so that we can identify a discrete problem and work towards a solution.

And thanks in advance to the Boston Police for your time and help on this project.  We can’t wait to work closely with you!

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