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|November 17, 2010
Director of Communications
Two decades ago, Probation Officers in Dorchester District Court–since renamed Boston Municipal Court-Dorchester–ventured out of the courthouse and into the streets, homes, and haunts of probationers–giving birth to what is now known as Operation NiteLite, a probation supervision initiative.
At the time, according to BMC-Dorchester Chief Probation Officer Bernard Fitzgerald, Boston was reeling from an uptick in gun violence among probationers. Fitzgerald said Probation Officers felt compelled to do something about it.
“It started from the ground up. The feeling then was that we shouldn’t be doing this. Everybody thought it was too dangerous. But, the Probation Officers did it in spite of it,” Fitzgerald said. “At the time, there was a lot of violence. A lot of young men were shooting and killing each other.”Probation Officers responded with the creation of Operation NiteLite. This special program pairs Probation Officers with Police Officers, creating a strong bond that equally benefits police, probation, and the community until this day. The first Operation NiteLite visits took place on a cold November night in 1992, according to William “Billy” Stewart, one of two Probation Officers who led the effort. Richard Skinner, the other Probation Officer, has since passed away.
Stewart recalled, “There was no grand plan, no bench mark. It had never been tried before. Operation NiteLite brought us back to where we should be, working with the offender in the community.”
Remembering that November night 18 years ago, Stewart said there was a shooting within the first 15 minutes of the ride-along with police which resulted in a death.
When Stewart and Skinner arrived at the scene, they recognized several probationers in the crowd that had gathered. One probationer, he recalled, was momentarily speechless when he recognized Stewart, his Probation Officer at the time.
“He said ‘Probation doesn’t ride in any police car. That’s foul.’ How’s that for the element of surprise. Over the course of time, nothing can replace face to face contact,” Stewart said.
The premise of Operation NiteLite was simple but its impact has been far-reaching. It has evolved into an initiative that is practiced by Probation Officers across the Commonwealth. Once considered a key part of the Boston Miracle of the 1990’s and lauded by President William Clinton’s administration, Operation NiteLite continues to serve as a national and international model for the community supervision of offenders.
“We’ve been all around the country to talk about Operation NiteLite. I can’t tell you all of the cities we’ve visited where we have talked about the program,” Fitzgerald said.
Operation NiteLite has also evolved into various initiatives including Operation Alarm Clock and Operation Silent Night, both established at BMC-Dorchester. Operation Alarm Clock was an effort that roused offenders–
identified as having gang ties–out of their beds in the wee morning to ensure that they had indeed adhered to their curfew and were following the orders of the court to look for employment. Operation Silent Night targeted domestic violence offenders during the holiday season. Statistics, at the time, showed a spike in domestic violence offenses during the holiday season.
Mark McHale, Regional Supervisor for Suffolk County and a former Dorchester Probation Officer when Operation NiteLite debuted, said efforts such as Probation’s Operation Common Cause was influenced by Operation NiteLite. Through Common Cause, Probation Officers joined with police to patrol the Boston Common, Downtown Crossing, and area nightspots where high profile crimes occurred.
“As a Probation Officer at an inner-city court, I found that Probation officers always had a good relationship with police. I think now that because of NiteLite, any Chief in any court in the Commonwealth can reach out to the local police department. It’s just communication between probation and police,” said McHale.
Operation NiteLite has also spawned a number of unique Probation initiatives throughout the state. These efforts include Probation Officers maintaining a presence at community events such as the annual Caribbean Festival in Boston, the Eastern Exposition Fair or “Big E” outside of Springfield, the Brockton Fair in Brockton, and a week-long carnival in Middleboro.
“When we started this initiative almost 20 years ago, I had no idea that it would have the impact it has had and continues to have in communities across the state,” Fitzgerald said.