In Codman Square, a frank look at safety through community, police eyes

Two dozen community members, health advocates, and community service police officers laid out their public safety concerns and struggles from the Black Box theater in the Codman Square Health Center on Monday evening.

Community organizers Yvette Modestin and Jarred Johnson, with the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, led the meeting and asked a simple question of its participants: What does public safety mean to you?

Their answers were complex, rooted in gender, race, and power imbalances. Women in the group said they often felt unsafe walking through their neighborhoods. Men said they struggled with a racial component to feeling unsafe around or perceived as threatening toward other men or groups of young adults.

The Monday gathering was the fourth such dialogue, Modestin said, with topics including race and economics, displacement, and mental health and wellness.

Community violence weighed heavily on the group, which cited the recent shooting homicides outside the Jeremiah E. Burke High School and at a barbershop in Mattapan. The mass shooting at an LGBTQ-friendly nightclub in Orlando marked a violation of what was meant to be a safe space, Modestin said, “and it brings up the issue of what is safe today.”

Attendees had an opportunity to share anecdotes about their challenges with public safety and occasional interactions with police and other community members.

Public safety and community care are fundamental callings for those who spend day in, day out trying to connect with the neighborhoods and support their residents, said one community service officer. “You have to reach out; you have to have it in your heart.”

The conversation was raw at times, involving feelings of deep insecurity.

“When you see a group of young men, you should not be fearful of your own people, but it’s something that’s there,” one participant said. “You can see four white guys walking down, and it’s okay, but you see a group of black brothers just hanging out, and they can just be shooting the breeze, but you feel threatened.”

He hopes that, as a community, they might find a way to reverse that instinct, “but that’s a stigma that’s out there. That fear for ourself… fearful of our own kids.” He shook his head. “They’re little kids; they’re teenagers that we’re fearful of.”

Modestin nodded. “We’re having some nice kumbaya moments in the circle,” she said, “ but we have to be real: Race does play itself out differently when you define safety.” Even the women who raised issues of feeling physically unsafe or threatened by men on the street are impacted by racial differences in how people feel entitled to interact with them, Modestin said.

Half an hour before the public safety discussion was set to start, another community event was taking place outside the health center: a neighborhood walk for peace. They are designed to facilitate conversation and relationships among community stakeholders, incorporate members of faith groups, law enforcement, civic organizations, and other community members as they traverse specific neighborhoods in shows of solidarity.

One such event, attended by Police Commissioner William Evans and Codman Square Health center CEO Sandra Cotterell, kicked off from the health center at 6 p.m., “I appreciate everyone getting out,” Evans told the dozen or so gathered in a circle outside on the warm spring evening. “The last couple of weeks have had a little uptick in the violence, so I think these walks really send a good message that we want the streets [quieter], especially in the summer months.” After a prayer, the group headed down Washington Street.

The timing of the two events resulted in a slow start to the public health meeting, which initially comprised organizers, three community officers, and two musicians.

SaTar’Ra Troutman and Tabari Lake, who have been involved with the Black Lives Matter movement at Berklee College, performed musically during the early part of the session. While they sympathized with the assertion that not all police officers should be tainted by the few bad apples among them, the consequences of a police officer being wrong could be a life, they said.

As the evening wore on, participants who were out walking began spilling into the session, widening the small circle of chairs. Along with trauma specialists and community liaisons, representatives from City Councillor Andrea Campbell’s office and the attorney general’s office were present at the public safety discussion.

By the session’s end, officers had shared a commitment to their communities and their struggles to both do their jobs and maintain human connection to those in need. A therapist said she didn’t feel entirely truthful reassuring her patients that they would make it home in one piece. And mothers had wondered how to raise children who could be safe without living in fear of their neighbors.

“Public safety is, do you feel safe from when you close your door to when you get back?” Johnson said. He and Modestin said they plan to have another discussion on the topic of public safety, as Monday’s gathering raised issues that merit further airings. A meeting on intergenerational conversations is scheduled for July 18.

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