Police park phone use unclear

October 19, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

A 9-foot blue pole topped with a flashing light will soon be installed somewhere at Jamaica Pond—just one of 20 police call boxes going into various city parks.

The box will allow people to call the Boston Police Department’s (BPD) 911 service with the push of a button.

But in the cell phone era, it remains unclear if the phones are necessary and useful or a cosmetic solution to the controversial lack of Boston Park Rangers. It is also unknown how much it costs to acquire, operate and maintain the phones.

Gerry Wright, head of the local advocacy group Friends of Jamaica Pond, expressed concern that the call box could be a “photo-op, superficial” item with unintended negative consequences.

“The blue pole indicates you’re in a crime area, when we’re trying to say the park is a place nature dominates,” Wright said. “It’s a contradictory message, from my perspective.”

“People have cell phones these days,” Wright said. “What’s the efficiency of this phone on a blue pole compared to somebody nearby with a cell phone?” He noted that there is also already a public pay phone at the pond’s gazebo.

Wright, who learned of the call box plan from the Gazette, said he wants more information about the phones and the pond’s crime statistics.

The Boston Parks and Recreation Department referred all questions to BPD, which did not respond to Gazette questions.

However, both departments have given vague or perception-based rationales for the phones in other media reports. None of the rationales involve a jump in crime at Jamaica Pond Park or other city parks. Incident reports from the local E-13 Police Station show very little crime of any kind in the pond area.

The Dorchester Reporter quoted BPD Superintendent Daniel Linskey as saying, “It provides a deterrent. It’s kind of like a park ranger in uniform. You see it and if you have concerns it alleviates them. And something like a blue light makes people less concerned and if you push [the call box button], it oscillates and everyone around it would know you had a problem.”

The first call boxes were installed in Dorchester’s Ronan Park in 2005 in response to a murder there. However, Linskey was quoted in the Boston Bulletin as saying that the call boxes in Ronan Park are mostly used to report sports injuries.

Wright expressed concern that a call box at the pond could create a perception of a crime problem that doesn’t exist. In terms of deterrence, he said, it might simply make a criminal think, “‘I’m going do my thing on the exact opposite side of the pond [from the phone].’”

Wright said that the biggest problem at the pond from his understanding is not major crime—it is minor “civility” issues, such as skateboarding, that disturb the park’s atmosphere. He noted that a 911 call box won’t address such issues, but a park ranger could, as well as providing an educational function.

One of the first of the new round of call boxes was installed last month on the Dorchester side of Franklin Park. It is unclear when and exactly where the Jamaica Pond call box will be installed. It is unclear why any of the nine parks receiving call boxes were targeted for the service. The Franklin Park Coalition, a local advocacy group, did not return a Gazette phone call about the use of the boxes there.

Wright expressed concern that the large pole could be an aesthetic “distraction” at the pond. He said he hopes Friends of Jamaica Pond will be consulted about its location.

Similar call boxes have been common public safety features for years on college campuses. However, the popularity of such devices appears to be declining with the success of personal cell phones.

About 67 to 80 percent of the US population uses a cell phone, according to recent estimates by the US Census, Harris Poll and the industry trade group CTIA The Wireless Association. That percentage is increasing annually, and is higher for people aged 30 and younger.

The Sacramento Bee reported in 2005 that use of emergency call boxes on Los Angeles County freeways plummeted by a factor of 8 over the previous 10 years, a drop attributed to the rise in personal cell phone use. However, the county maintained the program, not only for drivers without cell phones, but because government funding of the program was used for other transportation improvements.

It is unclear whether there has been some sort of problem with cell phone calls to 911 made from Boston parks. During the most recent emergency at Jamaica Pond, a July drowning death, the victim’s boyfriend reportedly contacted police with his cell phone. There does not appear to have been a problem with the response time.

One benefit of a push-button call box over a cell phone may be the confusing cell phone 911 system. If a Boston resident dials 911 on a cell phone, they will get the State Police, who can patch them through to BPD. To get BPD directly on a cell phone, a caller has to dial 343-4911. However, it is easy to program most cell phones to dial that with the touch of a single button.

The BPD is a subscriber to CitizenObserver.com, an organization that sends text messages about local police news and emergency information to residents’ cell phones.

The original Ronan Park call boxes were cell phones, according to Boston Globe reports at the time. It is unclear how the new phones operate.

The Sacramento Bee also reported on a 2005 federal lawsuit, later settled, filed against Los Angeles County because its roadside call boxes did not have a TTY service for hearing-impaired users, in apparent violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act. It is unclear whether the Boston police call boxes are TTY-enabled.

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