Policing parks a work in progress

When the city of Boston disbanded its Municipal Police Department - a small, but focused force that patrolled city parks, buildings and parking lots exclusively - some local residents worried that there would be a noticeable gap in police patrols and a potential explosion in vandalism, vagrancy and delinquency. A year-and-a-half later, there's been no measurable jump in park incidents, but there are lingering concerns about just how secure neighborhood parks can be post-Muni.

Neighborhood parks have always been flashpoints for turf battles and trespassing and several city parks (including Walsh, Dorchester and Ronan) have repeatedly been the scenes of homicides since the 1980s. But several events have highlighted the potential for danger this summer. Earlier this month, two teenagers were arrested on gun charges after one allegedly waved a gun and the other a knife during an altercation on the street hockey court at Garvey Park on Neponset Avenue. The incident came on the heels of unverified reports - emanating from both Garvey Park and the state-owned Toohig Park on Gallivan Boulevard - of teens squaring off with baseball bats, knifes and flashing guns in rivalries at the parks.

In July, Boston Police attached to an anti-gang unit arrested two teens - each armed with a gun - at Hunt-Almont Park in Mattapan.

And this week, an as-yet-unidentified man was found stabbed to death in Adams-King Playground, a passive, half-acre park that neighbors say has been relatively free of problems in recent years. The deceased man was discovered stabbed to death on a park bench on Monday morning.

With Boston Police Department resources already stretched thin, just how much territory can BPD sector cars be expected to cover? Dorchester alone has more than 20 city owned parks, cemeteries and squares that are now solely the responsibility of the BPD. (State Police have jurisdiction at some of the neighborhood's largest open spaces, including the 72 acre Pope John Paul II Park, Toohig and the Neponset II park.) That does not include the more than 30 schoolyards in Dorchester and Mattapan that sometimes draw crowds of kids after-hours.At night, a number of these open spaces, particularly those that do not directly abut busy streets, provide perfect cover.

City Council President Maureen Feeney says that while the local C-11 police district she works with have been "phenomenal" in responding to constituent complaints, she is concerned that a consistent approach to policing the open spaces - particularly at night - is lacking.

"Hopefully, we can identify some opportunity to create a better system that allows for the police presence that we need," said Feeney. "It's not neglect, its just that C-11 is one of busiest police districts in the city and we have an unusual number of parks in our district. We just need to look at this in more comprehensive way, whether its having designated cars or officers who patrol the parks.

"In the meantime, we need residents to let eyes and ears to make sure we know what's going on," she said.

Earlier this month, Feeney's office blasted letters to dozens of residents who live next door to city parks, urging them to help curb illicit activities by calling police and other city officials with tips. She also offered instructions on how to start a community crime watch.

"It's the people surrounding these schools and parks who are living with the problem," she said. "They are more than likely the ones who can identify the best time to get police in there. What we're asking them to do is give us the information that they can so we can help them create a safer neighborhood. When you have a friends group that are really engaged in that open space, I think it's a lot more difficult for negative behavior to occur."

One of the prime examples of such a turn-around, Feeney says, is Dorchester Park, which has been reclaimed in recent years after a moribund period in the 1980s, when the park was littered with broken glass and graffiti and scorched by frequent fires. An ongoing partnership between the city's Parks and Recreation Department and the Friends of Dorchester Park has been largely responsible for what is now a much cleaner and safer park.

Jane Boyer, one of the people responsible for the turn-around at Dot Park, says that the Parks Department is quick to respond to complaints - especially on maintenance issues. But, Boyer acknowledges that it is harder now to get a regular police presence in the park.

"I do miss the Municipals," said Boyer, who says the primary trouble at Dorchester Park is renewed evidence of overnight drinking parties on the tennis courts. The city cleans up the broken glass that she often finds smashed on the courts, but it's more difficult to get a regular response from police.

"I've asked the captain to go in there sporadically. The park is closed at 9:30 p.m., so there is supposed to be no loitering," says Boyer.

The problems are even more menacing at Hunt-Almont Park in Mattapan, where some longtime residents say that they have stopped using the park - even during daylight hours.

Gareth Kinkead, who leads the Colorado Street Citizens Group, says that he has been clamoring for an emergency call box to be installed at the park, where he says gambling, public drinking and menacing, unleashed dogs have become a growing nuisance.

"We haven't been too pleased with Almont Park at all," says Kinkead, who also leads a walking group that - in the past - has used the park as its base. "We've seen some people coming in with pit bulls and unleashing them. People are scared. There's gambling, scooters, drinking going on. It's getting difficult to get folks in there. They feel they're being threatened by youth who are being a little too reckless there. A lot of people are getting discouraged," Kinkead says.

There is some evidence that unrelated police deployment patterns are helping to make certain parks more secure. The BPD's Safe Streets operation - which deploys five-officer teams to specific sections like Codman Square and Bowdoin-Geneva - has helped to give parks near those business districts more regular coverage. The Bowdoin-Geneva team, for example, makes nightly rounds at Ronan Park, which has seen its share of violent incidents in years past. It has been a relatively peaceful, yet active summer on the park atop Meetinghouse Hill, according to neighbor Paige Davis.

"The park has been packed every night with anywhere from 50-100 people every night from 5 to 10 p.m. The police are almost always there. It's great during those hours," says Davis, who is a member of the Friends of Ronan Park.

"I know there was one incident that happened after the programming ended. If the police aren't there, people take advantage of it."

One quality of life problem that has proliferated, even under police watch, she says, is the illegal use of motor bikes.

Boston Police Superintendent Daniel Linskey, who once headed up the Municipal Police Department and is now the BPD's chief of Field Services, says he thinks the shift in resources has gone "fairly well."

"We have a pretty good system in place with the Parks superintendent," says Linskey. "I get a weekly e-mail from the Parks Commissioner with any concerns from her staff or if she gets complaints from citizens. She'll give me a list of those parks and I forward it to the Mobile Operations Unit and to the district commander. They are both responsible for making sure that the parks are safe."

Linskey says the the Mobile Operations Unit has officers on motorcycles who have specific assignments to reconnoiter inside parks that may be difficult to enter with a cruiser.

Linskey, given his past role as Municipal chief, still fields many calls himself from park abutters who bring him tips on budding problems.

And patrol officers help too. In Wainwright Park, an officer attached to the Safe Streets team in Codman Square conceived of and led an effort to install new lighting in the park, Linskey says.

"One of my police officers is an electrician and he did a lighting assessment and determined that we could do some crime prevention through design," said Linskey. "They lit that park up so it's not conducive to doing the right thing."

Linskey also argues that having BPD officers on the beat - instead of Municipal badges who did not have jurisdiction outside of the parks and city-owned properties - is having an impact for the greater good.

"I can tell you we've made it more effective," Linskey says. "Before, [the Municipals] couldn't do things across the street from the parks. It didn't make sense. My own personal opinion is that there were a lot of concerns at first, but I haven't heard from those folks since."

Corina Carleton, a King Street resident who was instrumental in creating Adams-King Playground 30 years ago, says that it really does fall on neighbors to direct enforcement and stay vigilant. Monday's murder, she says, came as a great shock to her because she walks it each morning and hasn't seen evidence of drug or alcohol abuse there. Still, she goes to bed early and can't be certain that trouble-makers don't frequent the park in the wee hours.

"Our street is pretty good about calling," Carleton says. "As one community service officer told me years ago, 'If you don't tell us, it didn't happen.'"