Well over 100 teens from Cedar Grove and Neponset have been summonsed into Dorchester district court in recent weeks and months in an aggressive attempt by State Police to curb loitering, vandalism and underage drinking in local parks. The increased law enforcement pressure comes as parents are meeting with mixed success in trying to lure teens off the streets and into programs at a city-run community center.
Much of the police activity recently has been focused at Toohig Playground, a state-owned baseball field and playground tucked into a residential neighborhood between Gallivan Boulevard and Minot Street that has been a gathering spot for generations of Dorchester kids. Lately, it has also been the breeding ground for bad conduct that police and neighbors say has been increasingly disorderly and disrespectful to abutters and families who make use of the park in daytime hours.
State Police Trooper Brian Dunn says he and his fellow troopers have made public drinking and other youth-related problems a priority in recent months, mainly because of a large volume of complaints from nearby residents. State Police assigned to the South Boston barracks- which has been reinforced with nine new officers in the last year- have made routine checks at Toohig, Pope John Paul II Park and Wollaston beach in Quincy a regular part of their patrols, Dunn said.
"Underage drinking has become a real problem at a lot of the old (state) properties, like Wollaston beach, Day Boulevard in Southie and, lately, at Toohig," says Dunn.
In a plan aimed at sending a tough message without generating a criminal record, State Police sat down with court magistrates in Dorchester last summer and agreed to issue summons to teen violators found hanging out in the parks after-hours. The summons are frequently being issued during night-time raids of local parks where teens are found with quantities of alcohol.
The summons strategy does not generate a formal criminal complaint and generally ends with a hearing at Dorchester Court in Codman Square, in which a magistrate scolds teens, issues punishment in the form of community service and warns alleged offenders that the next contact with police in a similar setting could result in more dire consequences.
According to William Farrell, an assistant clerk at Dorchester court, groups of 4-5 teenagers have been coming in at a time on such summonses.
"This is the right strategy," says Farrell, who is himself a Dorchester native and resident. "The typical State Police officer or Boston cop working the street day in, day out, they have a feel for the neighborhood and what it needs. They make judgment calls all of the time. They understand when it's time to give someone a break- and when someone has abused the opportunity to learn a lesson.
"In this case, if (a teen suspect) blows their chance, there will be a price to pay that could really cause them problems in the future," says Farrell.
Farrell and Trooper Dunn -another Dorchester native- are like many of the parents struggling with how to approach the Neponset youth issue: They too grew up "hanging out" in local parks and understand that park culture has been a tradition in Dorchester for generations. But, recent events have ratcheted up anxieties among parents and neighbors, who say that teens who are abusing alcohol, destroying property and causing broader quality of life problems in the parks have prompted a more aggressive approach than in years past.
"There are a lot more pitfalls now," says Dunn.
"People are using heroin now as an entry level drug. That's outrageous. There's (OxyContin), crystal meth, so many things that kids can have access to today."
And while Dunn says that State Police have found "zero" evidence that young people who congregate at Neponset's parks are engaged in drug abuse, illicit alcohol use is a mainstay. The debris of weekend parties has littered the state park repeatedly and some of the trash finds its way over fences and into abutters' property. Perhaps most disturbingly, volunteers who organized a clean-up of Toohig last Saturday reported finding used condoms discarded among play structures designed for small children close to the park's Gallivan Boulevard entrance.
Another troubling development of the last year was an inter-neighborhood feud that boiled over last summer between Dorchester teens and rivals from West Roxbury. The feud, Dunn says, became violent on a few occasions and also fueled a vandalism spree that has marred parks on both sides of the city.
"Skirmishes were going on back and forth and the parents were very concerned that somebody was going to bring harsh language to a gun fight," Dunn said.
Another incident at Toohig last summer raised further alarms about the changing nature of park culture: A group of teens were robbed at gunpoint inside the park by unknown assailants.
Dunn said that the robbery was likely an isolated incident- and highly unusual for that section of Dorchester. But, it spoke to a reality that "people know that there's a group of people drinking in there and that they can be an easy target."
"We're finding that they are all good kids," says Dunn. "The majority are private school kids.
And the parents are very much on board with us. I've tried to tell them, 'Look, these kids aren't coming from Milton and Quincy. They're your kids."
Police are not the only players working on the problem. Parents have become increasingly proactive in the last year in their attempts to offer alternative weekend activities for teens.
Kathy Costello is one of a group of Neponset mothers who pushed successfully last fall for the Murphy Community Center to open its doors on Friday nights to local teens. After a September meeting facilitated by City Councillor Maureen Feeney, Costello says that the center agreed to allow for a drop-in program on Fridays from 6-10 p.m., when the facility has previously been closed. The idea, Costello says, is to provide a safe alternative to the parks without over-programming young people who tend to already have a busy weekday workload with school and sports.
"It's very exciting what the Murphy offers now. They've hired David Blandino- who is an awesome kid- to be down there since November. It's geared really to kids 15 and older. They play basketball, Playstation and &endash; if more of them show up- there can be other activities as well."
So far, Costello says, few teens have plugged into the Murphy's new Friday night offerings. But she and other local moms hope this week's colder weather- and increased publicity- will bring in a few new takers.
"The feedback so far is that they don't want to come. But, it's there for them," said Costello.
Beth Donovan, who lives near Toohig Park, tried another approach last weekend. Working with officials from the state's Department of Conservation and Recreation, Donovan organized a Saturday morning clean-up at Toohig that succeeded in filling a pick-up truck with debris collected from the site. About a dozen people- including several teens who use the park regularly- helped out in what was the first of what Donovan hopes will be regular community clean-ups.
She was motivated to act after she discovered that someone vandalized the Toohig tot lot, which she uses regularly with her younger children.
"This was graphic, sexual grafitti," Donovan says. "It's getting to the point that parents don't want to take their little kids there any more. For a lot of us, that's the last straw."
Donovan says that a large group of teenagers were detained by State Police on New Year's eve near the park. Some of the kids were suspected of vandalizing stores and harassing merchants along Gallivan Boulevard.
Trooper Dunn says that group field interrogations- like the one that Donovan witnessed- will likely be a regular tactic used by State Police. An infusion of nine rookie troopers were trained in the last several months in the new strategy and are now out on their own patrols aimed at tackling such quality of life complaints head-on.
"We had so many problems this past summer, I think our attitude is: You're going to get one bite at the apple. We realize that a lot of these kids are good kids. Most of them are polite: 'yes sir, no sir.' So we're not trying to hammer these kids. But, if they don't listen and pay attention now,
if they keep it up and are messing up quality of life, they are going to pay a price for it.
"We're trying to get the message across this way. It's kind of like the iron fist and the velvet glove right now. If they don't get it, we will escalate it to the next step of court proceedings. We don't want to do it, but we will."
Bobby Madden, a longtime neighborhood activist who lives on Gallivan Boulevard, generally approves of the more aggressive police strategy. But Madden says that the large groups of neighborhood kids who can be seen heading to or from the parks speaks to another local shortfall.
"We're the only neighborhood in the city that doesn't have a Boys and Girls Club and-or a YMCA close-by. Any other neighborhood has one or the other or both," Madden says.
"A lot of these kids are caught in between. They need a place to go. And we as parents, too, have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, we have to pay more attention," says Madden.
"This is not just a Toohig Park problem or South Boston or a Quincy problem," says Dunn. "It's a kid problem."