C-11 cops gain new footing with "Safe Street" teams

Early one evening this week, two little heads with a problem poked into the cruiser that had pulled over on Washington Street. The two brothers, around ten years old, had left their two bicycles in their backyard, only to have them stolen by alleged gang members.

As Sgt. Lucas Taxter called in the group of police officers further up the street, the taller brother hesitantly looked down in the direction of the Codman Square Library, where the gang members were hanging out.

His younger, shorter brother wondered what would happen if a fight broke out, before quickly turning to another problem: getting dinner.

"I don't want to fight," the tall one said. "I just want my bike."

Down the street, the three gang members, seated on the steps on the library's side, surrounded by bits of graffiti on the metal door and red bricks, a "No Trespassing" sign above them and a small pool of spit below, maintained the bikes were theirs as four officers aggressively questioned them.

"They're definitely not reading," Officer Garvin McHale quips. "If they were, they'd read the sign that says 'No Trespassing.'"

The little boys' mother confirmed the bikes belonged to her sons, a gift from her brother.

The three gang members were then put in a wagon, charged with trespassing and receiving stolen property, as one of their peeved mothers came out to see what the problem was, before starting to yell into the wagon.

"He says he finds bikes all the time," McHale relays when he returns to the cruiser, in order to be dropped back up the street.

"And they belong to 9-year-olds," Taxter said.

"We don't have to worry about those kids for the rest of the night. That's sweet," he adds. "They're not going to deal drugs tonight, they're not going to rob anyone. It's community police style, but we're still cops."

The whole incident lasted about a half-hour. No wailing sirens, chalk outlines, or strains of Inner Circle's reggae tune "Bad Boys," the famous hallmark of the "Cops" television show.

Asked if this was typical of the nascent walking beat program, "It's becoming that," Taxter said, including the enforcement of public drinking laws, loitering and allowing people to be able to "walk in peace."

About six weeks old to some parts of the city, the "Safe Street Team Initiative" was launched as a pilot program in the Bowdoin-Geneva area, Grove Hall, and Downtown Crossing, before getting expanded to statiscally-designated hotspots, including the Morton-Talbot corridor and Codman Square.

The initiative mirrors a similar program Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis started when he was in Lowell.

Deploying in the early evening, five officers and one sergeant walk along the streets, before turning down residential roads, taking pains to ensure they're seen by residents.

Codman Square is unique: It has six police from the C-11 area police station and another six from the B-3 area station, with their beat divided right down Washington Street.

Officers say they act as one unit, with each team tuned to the others' frequency. In the case of the gang members at the library, Taxter supervised the B-3 police officers on his side of the beat.

Police staffing levels remain stable, supplemented by those who have just graduated out of the academy and lateral transfers from other cities. The initiative is voluntary.

"They're walking because they want to," Taxter says.

Taxter, the sergeant who heads up the C-11 team, acknowledges people will at first be apprehensive before starting to come to them with concerns.

The city's neighborhood services also views them as a top priority, he adds, noting that includes adequate street lighting and taking care of graffiti within a reasonable amount of time after he calls them.

Officers have also managed to tell the X.O. Restaurant, further up Washington Street, to tell its customers to smoke outside the rear of the bar, clearing the way for other residents to walk the street and use the Citizens Bank ATM next door, and clearing out the parking lot between the bar and the Walgreens.

"If you can keep them happy, that's half the battle," he says of the residents.

That seems to be working: "I've never seen so many people thank me in my life," acknowledges Takisha Skeen, a police officer who has worked the C-11 area for about 10 years and, like the sergeant, lives in Hyde Park.

Nearly six months in, it appears too early to tell the permanent effects of the program. But residents and business owners say it's helping, making customers, especially the elderly ones, feel more comfortable.

"It has driven the bad elements from the area," said Victor Aduayi, owner of Flora's Beauty Supply, across the street from the bar. "You can't find them."

Richard Heath, community organizer for the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, which owns a number of the buildings in the area, said results are being seen right away.

Both Taxter and the sergeant from the B-3 area stopped by the organization's storefront, as a committee was holding a development meeting. Heath came out to press them on a shooting on Rosedale Street and graffiti on one of their properties.

The "street life" has dropped off considerably, Heath said later, and the police going after the graffiti, loiterers, dirty sidewalks has made a "big difference."

"I'm pretty pleased," said Heath, who has worked in Codman Square for over three years. "I think we're all guarded about it," both the police and the people, because it's "brand new," he said.

What will happen once crime goes down is unclear. Not so much for the police officers.

"I think we're a permanent fixture," Taxter said while walking down one of the residential side streets. "We're not going anywhere."