By Mike Cullity
Less than a year after Edward F. Davis ’86 became Boston’s police commissioner in December 2006, an assailant shot and killed 13-year-old Steven Odom in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood as the youngster walked home with friends after playing basketball.
The crime shocked the city and led police to speculate that Odom was a victim of mistaken identity. After police investigated for more than a year, Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley announced that Odom’s killer was Charles Bunch Jr., an 18-year-old who was murdered 10 days after Odom. He also announced the arrest of 19-year-old David Johnson, who allegedly supplied Bunch with the murder weapon.
Last April, Johnson pleaded guilty to being an accessory to murder and related charges. Under the terms of a plea bargain approved by Odom’s parents, he was sentenced to six to eight years in prison.
Although Bunch’s murder prevented Odom’s shooter from facing charges, the investigation gave the Odom family some justice. That might not have occurred, Davis said, without the Dorchester community’s help.
“People in the neighborhood helped us with descriptions and told us things that, quite frankly, several years before we might not have received simply because they were feeling that the police weren’t really there to assist,” he said.
Taking it to the Streets
Establishing strong relationships between police and citizens has been a priority for Davis throughout his career. The former Lowell, Mass., police superintendent has been a longtime advocate of community policing, a model that encourages officers to get out of their cruisers and cultivate community bonds.
While police engagement with residents can make a difference in solving crimes, community policing has a larger goal.
“It’s not arrest and prosecution,” Davis said. “It’s prevention.”
Davis has demonstrated that community policing works. In 12 years as Lowell’s top cop, he was credited with cutting serious crimes – such as homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault – by 60 percent. And in his first three years in Boston, the city’s serious crimes dropped 18 percent and shootings fell 40 percent, Davis said at an SNHU campus lecture last April.
A Lowell native whose father was a police officer, Davis joined his hometown force in 1978. He enrolled at SNHU in 1984 as a transfer student and attended classes on weekends while working full time. He graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science degree in social science.
In Lowell, Davis worked as a beat cop, a detective, and a vice and narcotics officer before being named superintendent in 1994. As the department’s leader, he reduced crime by deploying “safe-street teams” of officers into neighborhoods where violence traditionally occurred. He has used a similar approach in Boston, sending teams of six officers and a sergeant into the city’s most troubled areas.
“We did a longitudinal study on shootings in the city over 30 years, and it’s remarkable how similar the patterns were 30 years ago to where they are today,” he said.
A Neighborhood Approach
Davis still finds time to contribute to the nation’s law-enforcement dialogue. Since President Barack Obama’s 2008 election, he has conversed with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Police Service Office about the federal role in enhancing community-policing efforts across the country.
“We have an administration now that is concerned about [policing] and is working closely with us on making a difference,” he said.
Although Davis has reduced crime in Boston, challenges remain. On May 30, two assailants allegedly jumped 14-year-old Nicholas Fomby-Davis while the youth was riding a motor scooter in Dorchester. While one suspect held the boy down, the second murdered him, authorities said.
Police quickly apprehended the suspects, 20-year-old Crisostomo Lopes and 16-year-old Joshua Fernandes, who pleaded not guilty to murder. But in the wake of the stunning crime, Davis took a bold step toward preventing further violence, having his department distribute a flier showing photos of 10 suspected members of a gang alleged to be responsible for Fomby-Davis’ slaying and asking the public for information on the individuals.
“We are doing this because we believe the community can play a role in making the individuals who are responsible for the execution of a 14-year-old boy outcasts in their own neighborhood,” Davis told the Boston Globe.
Although Davis’ shaming tactic prompted debate, it demonstrates his commitment to community policing. And despite the demands of his job, Davis never seems to get too ruffled, said Bernard Melekian, director of the Community Oriented Police Service Office, who has worked with Davis on policing issues for more than a decade.
“Commissioner Davis works in one of the more challenging cities in the United States,” Melekian said. “It would not be surprising to see him get overwhelmed by day-to-day events, but he never does. He’s always calm and thoughtful, and he’s one of the most forward-thinking chiefs I know.”