Back in the early 2000s, the Boston Youth Options Unlimited (Y.O.U. Boston) operated a youth recreation center in Roxbury, where they provided young people from high-poverty neighborhoods a place to hang out and get their homework done. At least, that’s what they thought they were doing.
It wasn’t until two police officers, by chance, dropped into their youth center that they began to understand the services they were actually providing. The police officers were amazed: “Do you realize who’s in this building?” they asked the Y.O.U. staff, aghast. “Of course!” the staff replied. “These are our Y.O.U. kids.”
To the surprise of Y.O.U., the police officers informed them that the kids in the building were not only Y.O.U. regulars, but also gang members — in fact, they represented multiple gang networks throughout Boston. The police officers were afraid that violence might break out at the youth center; the Y.O.U. staff began to realize that the services they were providing were much more profound than basketball courts and quiet spaces for homework. To the gang-affiliated youth who were Y.O.U. regulars, Y.O.U. provided a very rare safe space where they could address many of the complex social challenges (from health to education to housing) that contributed to their gang affiliation in the first place. Often, having been kicked out of the YMCA and Boys & Girls clubs in their neighborhood, Y.O.U. was the only safe space these kids had left.
Since then, Y.O.U. Boston has leveraged their trust and success in working with gang-affiliated youth to launch a variety of other programs. Perhaps the most prominent is Operation Exit, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s flagship program to provide gang-affiliated youth pathways out of violent conflict by equipping them with the skills for successful careers in union trades, hotels, and even computer coding. The program has been a success overall, graduating nearly 50 people in three cohorts and placing nearly all of them in jobs. Even beyond those 50 graduates, the City hopes that Operation Exit is changing a culture of low expectations and few opportunities that contribute to gang affiliation.
As students in Professor Nick Sinai’s Technology and Innovation in Government course, we have been hearing all semester about the importance of Operation Exit to the City of Boston. We’ve also been charged to search for ways in which improving the flow of information can help the Boston Police Department. To us, this story about the founding of Operation Exit represents the best of what free-flowing information can do for the city: when the knowledge and experiences of officers and community workers came together, brand new opportunities for serving gang affiliates became apparent. It takes a village to solve a problem like gang violence—but when that village becomes too big, that can cause its own issues for sharing knowledge and ideas.
One challenge that Operation Exit faces today is that too often, productive information sharing is accidental, not systematic. Just as police officers a decade ago were surprised to learn which kids Y.O.U. was serving, Y.O.U. staff today are often surprised by who police officers are stopping on the streets. Too often, they fear, the youth participating in Operation Exit are stopped by the police. (Y.O.U. staff admitted that police stops of Operation Exit participants are often justified; but just as often, they fear the stops simply reflect how difficult it is to untangle oneself from old friends and neighborhoods, even while making major changes in the rest of one’s life.) After stopping an Operation Exit participant, police officers see only the participants long criminal record, and often have no idea that the person they stopped is trying to “do the right thing” and making progress to establish a better life. If the officers knew that their suspect was making legitimate progress toward a career, it may help to build trust and support the suspect’s tenuous attempts to establish a career. But without that key information, there is little reason to treat them as anything other than a criminal. Boston police officers are already working to reduce the higher rate at which young men of color are stopped and arrested; more knowledge of Operation Exit participants may be one piece of that puzzle.
That’s where we think we can help. Our charge is to help information flow more freely to aid the Boston Police Department. We believe that the relationship between Operation Exit staff and police officers is one place where increasing information flow could make a big difference. Even better, the problem can likely be addressed via simple but effective solutions, such as emails, posters, meet-ups, ID cards, and Google Docs. These seemingly simple interventions could keep officers and Operation Exit staff aware of each other’s work. Instead of building or buying the latest technology, we think that in this instance BPD would be better served by using everyday collaboration tools to share information, as a regular part of everybody’s job.
Operation Exit is not the only place where we believe that better processes can make a big difference in the lives of police officers and citizens. Our team is also prototyping tools to 1. make seizing illegal firearms safer by centralizing much of the city’s building data (a practice already being used by the Fire Department while responding to dispatches), and 2. help officers stay abreast of the many intelligence briefings they receive every day.
This week, we spent our time brainstorming solutions, mocking up prototypes, and testing assumptions. As we move into the weekend, we are excited to begin testing our ideas with police officers and detectives — and then, of course, revising and re-starting the brainstorm and design process based on what we’ve learned!