Boston’s Operation Night Light: new roles, new rules

Boston’s Operation Night Light: new roles, new rules

James T. Jordan

In 1775, Paul Revere signaled the start of the American Revolution when he mounted his horse to embark on his famous night ride to alert the Massachusetts farmers about the invading British army. In 1992, a lesser-known night ride by two Massachusetts probation officers and two Boston police detectives signaled the beginning of a collaborative revolution in public safety and criminal justice practice in Boston. This collaborative effort, later known as Operation Night Light, teams probation and police officers to ensure that gang members and other high-risk offenders comply with the terms of their probation. This full and equal partnership helped Boston break down the conventional barriers between police and community correction agencies and embrace a new, unified mission: preventing the next victimization. The pioneers in the two agencies transformed one another’s work. Police officers started practicing community corrections; probation officers began doing community crime control. Night Light served as a catalyst for getting all the relevant players onto the same field in order to better address youth violence.

The most ardent supporters of the program are the parents, grandparents, and guardians of the probationers. These adults fear for the lives and futures of their children and are grateful for the assistance. Numerous community stakeholders also have joined police and probation officers to help reduce the volume of crime committed by youthful probationers. Clergy members, youth outreach workers, social workers, alternative incarceration provider service workers, and school police officers have joined with traditional criminal justice agencies from inside and outside the city of Boston to form a stronger, more comprehensive crime control effort.

Initial Success

The power of a police and probation officer partnership was revealed a brief 15 minutes into that first ride-along in 1992. After receiving a call about a shooting in Dorchester, two police officers and two probation officers arrived to find a large number of youngsters standing around the prone body of a wounded, 15-year-old victim who later died. When the two police officers stepped out of the car, none of the onlookers left the scene. Many in the crowd knew the two decorated antigang officers and, although they took them very seriously, felt there was no crime in standing around at a shooting scene. The situation changed dramatically, however, when the two probation officers stepped out of the back seat. The crowd began to disperse immediately. The victim and several onlookers had been clients of one of the probation officers and they knew that being at the scene likely violated their probation. The crowd’s sudden dispersal emphasized the probation officer’s role in supervising and working with some of the most high-risk youths. It also illustrated that probationers see little peer stigma attached to leaving a street corner because a probation officer might be performing a curfew or area restriction check.

New Roles

In 1993, Night Light’s primary police unit, the highly decorated, 40-member Youth Violence Strike Force (YVSF) was established to address youth and gang violence in the city. Operationally, the program is very simple. Four nights a week, teams of probation and police officers visit the homes of high-risk probationers. Officers in a number of Boston’s police districts also visit with probation officers from their local district courts. Police officers work on overtime and regular shifts. Probation officers use flex time and compensation time to work on the program. The YVSF also includes personnel from a number of other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.

District and superior court justices across the city support Night Light. They issue terms of probation, such as curfews and area restrictions, tailored to the profiles of individual offenders. This enables probation and police teams to monitor and restrict probationers’ activities in ways that prevent future misdeeds. Probation officers develop lists of those to visit at home and on the street based on a risk assessment. On any given night, however, the teams may visit probationers as recommended by other members of the partnership. For example, if a minister hears from a family member that a probationer is in trouble and subsequently asks the probation officer to talk to the youth, a visit will occur that night.

The success of Night Light depends on a number of key operating principles. First, intensive communication and a unified sense of mission among all the partners are crucial. Preventing recidivism remains more important than compiling positive arrest statistics. Although arrests have been made for on-site criminal activity, such as open drag dealing, arrests and seizures do not represent the program’s main goals. Night Light intervention focuses primarily on probationers most likely to have and create problems. All officers must collaborate closely with the local judiciary to set new terms of probation, such as curfews and area restrictions, tailored to individual probationers. Training should emphasize safety as well as proper and courteous conduct when visiting a probationer’s home. Most important, Night Light is committed to a broad strategy characterized by prevention, intervention, and enforcement – a strategy that Boston has successfully implemented to combat a youth crime problem that began 10 years ago.


Young street gangs appeared in the inner-city neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Mattapan in an explosion of firearm violence in the spring of 1988. As offenders arrived at the arraignments for these shootings, probation officers noticed the offenders’ friends wearing colors to support them. Members of one group had trouble making up their minds about which color to wear. They appeared in the bright red and white of the Cincinnati Reds on one day and in the maize and blue of the University of Michigan a few days later. These early gangs established the pattern of street gang activity in Boston – territorial groups adopting the colors and names of professional or college sports teams. A gang associated with a particular street, housing development, or other turf would give themselves a name based on their street and the name of the sports team they adopted. Thus, dozens of loosely organized and highly localized gangs sprouted with names such as the “Raiders” or “Timberwolves.”

Based on their strong informal organizational ties, individual police officers, probation officers, and public school safety officers, who had begun seeing colors in the schools and picking up intelligence about the gangs and their developing rivalries, started to chart the spread of the gangs. At first, this information was maintained on paper by Boston police officers and school personnel. In 1990, the department began collecting gang data through the use of an electronic database.

As in most communities, however, it was difficult at first for policy-level officials to realize the new and frightening contours of the gangs and acknowledge their penchant for deadly violence. Officials were deeply concerned that labeling these groups of youthful offenders as gangs would serve only to encourage them and heighten their standing among other youth in the community. Thus, while all agencies stepped up their activities, they did so without a complete picture of the problem, and largely in strategic isolation from one another.

Law enforcement and community agencies applied conventional tactics with urgency and deep commitment, but the killings did not stop. In fact, intensified police patrols in the affected areas led to an outcry about overly aggressive tactics. By 1989, the outcry was given a formal voice when a superior court judge found that the police department was pursuing an unconstitutional policy of “stop and search.” Initially, all of this only served to further fragment the response, exacerbate the problem, and heighten community frustration.

The problem worsened. A city that had seen 75 homicides and 5,920 aggravated assaults in 1987 would see 95 homicides and 6,291 aggravated assaults in 1988. In 1990, homicides reached a high of 152 and 6,960 aggravated assaults were reported to police.(1)

Between 1990 and 1995, 25 percent of the offenders responsible for 155 gun and knife homicides of individuals aged 21 and under were on probation at the time of the offense, Fourteen percent of the victims were on probation at the time of their deaths and at least 42 percent of the victims had been on probation at some time.(2) These findings contributed significantly to the development of the Boston strategy by clarifying information about victims and offenders and emphasizing the need for an approach that would focus resources on those individuals.

The comprehensive strategy was still several years away in 1990, but the combination of escalating numbers of shootings and the high level of frustration compelled officials to take the first bold steps toward that goal. The most important of these steps was the establishment of the Boston Police Anti-Gang Violence Unit (AGVU). Three years later, this unit would evolve into the Youth Violence Strike Force.

The seeds of collaboration were planted when the AGVU started sending patrols directly into gang-impacted areas and, most important, began gathering and analyzing information about the problem. The probation and police officers began talking daily in the corridors of the district court building in Dorchester, where some of the city’s most vital, but most gang-impacted, neighborhoods are located. These conversations between dedicated public safety and criminal justice officers focused on developing a strategy to reduce the spiraling rate of youth homicide and assault. These informal discussions became the foundation for the future partnership.


Based on special recognition from the President and Attorney General(3) as well as on research(4) that supports the approach, jurisdictions throughout Massachusetts and across the country have replicated the Night Light program. Agencies from over 560 jurisdictions have requested information on the program, and over 140 have come or have scheduled site visits to Boston. Night Light directs the intervention to the problem and works especially well in Massachusetts, where 73 percent of all convicted individuals are sentenced to probation.(5) It addresses the frustration of the criminal justice community as well as residents who see offenders get arrested, often only to serve unsupervised sentences in the same neighborhoods in which their crimes were committed.

Recent statistics indicate that Night Light has made a tremendous impact on crime in Boston. Since implementation of the overall Boston strategy in 1996, of which Night Light is a primary component, the city has experienced a 70 percent decrease in the number of people age 24 and under killed by guns.(6) Between July 1995 and December 1997, no juvenile in Boston was killed with a firearm.(7)

The program has had a great impact on probation compliance in Boston. A 1997 Boston Police Department (BPD) study found that more than 50 percent of probationers were in compliance? In contrast, the compliance rate for probationers in the early 1990s was estimated at 17 percent. Significantly, the BPD study also found that as many as 37 percent of juveniles and 25 percent of 17- to 19-year olds not in compliance had surrendered and were serving out their sentences in custody. Also, a probation department study of the District Court in the Dorchester section of the city found that while the numbers of probationers surrendering for technical violations had risen by 9 percent, the numbers surrendering for new arrests had dropped 2 percent.(9)

The program succeeds largely by vigilantly making probationers accountable, in ever-larger numbers, for maintaining the behavior ordered by the court. Targeting the highest-risk offenders dramatically redirected resources. Going from zero supervisory visits to thousands each year made a substantial impact on the comparatively small number of offenders causing the most problems.(10) In Boston, more than 2,500 Night Light home and neighborhood visits were made in 1996.(11) The quality of the collaboration starkly contrasts with the fragmentation that hobbled public safety, criminal justice, and the community 10 years ago.

The Future

The Massachusetts Probation Service and the Boston Police Department have adopted the Night Light strategy to better address additional areas of the prevention of youth violence and repeat domestic violence offenses. Under a grant to the BPD from the Office of Justice Programs’ Violence Against Women Act Office and a related grant from the state Executive Office of Public Safety, police and probation officers closely supervise batterers. They focus on subjects of civil and domestic violence-related restraining orders who are on probation, wanted on outstanding warrants, or on parole for domestic violence or other offenses.

Civilian advocates work on victim safety planning with police and probation officers and encourage victims to take action. The project, named “No Next Time,” expresses the commitment to prevent repeat victimizations. Research indicates that 75 percent of subjects issued restraining orders in Massachusetts have criminal records.(12) Half of these offenders have criminal records for violence. Twenty-five percent or more of the aggravated assaults in Boston have a domestic connection.(13) Because 75 percent of offenders receive probationary sentences, a strategy of intensive supervision and intervention through programs like Night Light offers great promise.


Operation Night Light has earned deep support in the community. Many community stakeholders who initially thought that simply increasing street patrols would solve Boston’s youth and gang violence problem now realize the program’s benefits. Night Light demonstrates what authorities can accomplish when they use tough, but intelligent, tactics leavened with fairness and compassion. All the partners in the Night Light program believe that police and probation collaboration has put down deep roots in Boston that will continue to grow strong and support a safer, more peaceful community.


1 Annual Crime Summary, Office of Research and Evaluation, Boston Police Department, 1996, 3.

2 David M. Kennedy, Anne M. Piehl, and Anthony A. Braga, “Boston Gun Project: Key Findings,” unpublished report, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, John F. Kennedy School of Government, June 1997, 1-3.

3 Statement by President Clinton when visiting the University of Massachusetts on February 19, 1997, to hold a round table policy discussion about the Boston model and to announce the juvenile crime control proposal he later submitted to Congress.

4 Ronald P. Corbett, Jr., Bernard Fitzgerald, and James Jordan, “Operation Night Light: An Emerging Model of Police-Probation Partnership,” Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, Boston, MA, 1996, 110.

5 Mark A.R. Klieman, et. al., “Criminal Justice in Massachusetts: Putting Crime Control First,” the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth, October 1996, 6.

6 Research by David M. Kennedy and Anthony A. Braga, unpublished report, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, John F. Kennedy School of Government, 1997, 1.

7 Analysis of homicides reported to the Boston Police Department, unpublished report, Boston Police Office of Strategic Planning, 1998, 1.

8 Maribeth L. Trojan, “Operation Night Light: Introduction, Operations and Exploratory Research,” Boston Police Department, unpublished report, Boston Police Department, 1997, Table 6, 23.

9 Supra note 4, 110.

10 Professor Jack McDevitt, College of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University, Massachusetts, telephone conversation with author, July, 1997.

11 Supra note 8, 20.

12 Project History of the Massachusetts Statewide Restraining Order Registry, issued by the Massachusetts Trial Court, Office of the Commissioner of Probation, July 1994, 18.

13 Analysis of aggravated assaults reported to the Boston Police Department in 1995 by the Boston Police Department’s Office of Research and Evaluation.

James T. Jordan is the director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department

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