Survey finds tension between youths, MBTA police

David Taber

Gazette Photo by David Taber Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) youth leader Sheila Reyes, 15, speaks about the findings from an HSTF survey of 700 Boston youths about their interactions with MBTA Transit Police at a May 17 joint press conference held by HSTF and the Transit Police at the Jackson Square T Station.

JACKSON SQ.—Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF) youths and staffers and MBTA Transit Police officials presented data indicating a strained relationship between urban youth and transit police at a press conference at the Jackson Square T Station May 17.

The data is based on a survey of 700 youths conducted by HSTF youths in conjunction with the Pennsylvania-based firm Gutierrez Consulting Partnerships. Seventy-six percent of teens polled think MBTA police could communicate better; 66 percent do not feel safe with Transit Police on the MBTA; and 70 percent do not feel like the Transit Police are respectful toward them, according to information provided by HSTF.

Comments collected by the youths during the survey include a number of stories about youths being told to leave MBTA property, threatened with arrest or forced to board the wrong bus when Transit Police suspected them of loitering. Others told of having racial epithets hurled at them by police and having their bus passes confiscated.

Still others described being assaulted and wrongfully arrested.

“Seven hundred youths throughout the city do not feel represented, spoken to or safe…The message is there is a prominent perception of institutional racism,” HSTF coordinator of organizing and policy initiatives Karla Poulos said at the press conference.

In a phone interview, Ken Tangvik, director of program development at HSTF, told the Gazette that 35 percent of survey respondents reported that “Transit Police officers had spoken to them in racially charged language.” Another 30 percent reported that they did not have major problems with the MBTA police.

Tangvik said the survey was designed and administered by HSTF youth and reviewed for biases. The surveys were conducted at youths’ schools and at MBTA stations. “Is it as sophisticated as a New York Times or Gallup poll as far as random sampling? No,” he said.

MBTA Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan said Transit Police are taking the survey seriously, but that youth behavior could be improved as well. “Passengers frequently complain about youths behavior. I look forward to working with the Task Force to improve relations on both sides,” he said.

MBTA Transit Police Lt. Detective Mark Gillespie said at the press conference that Transit Police have, in recent years, adopted a policy of treating arrests as a “last resort.” According to data provided by the MBTA, youth arrests peaked at 662 in 1998. Last year there were 74 arrests.

Transit police have also developed a youth outreach program, called Stopwatch, with the Boston Centers For Youth and Families and about 20 other community partners, Gillespie said. That program regularly stations adults other than Transit Police officers at stations to interact with youth, he said.

The Transit Police are committed to “effective communication and effective listening,” he said.

HSTF staffers and youth said they appreciate those efforts.

State Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez, who spoke at the press conference, said he appreciates them, too, but more needs to be done. “It’s not about the arrest rate. It’s about respect and compassion for what the teens feel right now,” Sánchez said.

Sánchez led a moment of silence for 14-year-old Jaewon Martin, who was killed in a May 8 shooting near the station in the Southwest Corridor Park.

Both Sánchez and HSTF head Claudio Martinez said that conditions in the Jackson Square area and at the T station have improved drastically in recent years, in part thanks to a partnership between HSTF and the MBTA.

“Five years ago, we were talking to the MBTA about upgrading what was one of the worst T stations in the system,” Martinez said, referring to Jackson Square. “We learned that if we come together, we can actually turn dark places into places of light and hope,” he said.

HSTF youth called for the creation of a Transit Police youth advisory board, professional training for transit police “on positive social interaction with urban youth” and the reinstatement of the MBTA Transit Police community advisory board with at least two youth seats.

Tangvik said HSTF is particularly interested in seeing youth interaction training—an existing transit police program that is currently irregularly funded through grants—become a regular part of Transit Police training. If talks with the Transit Police do not work out, HSTF will take its demands to MBTA General Manager Richard Davey and to the state Department of Transportation, he said.

Speaking to the Gazette, Lisa Thurau of the Cambridge-based non-profit Strategies for Youth, which conducts trainings on youth-relations with law enforcement agencies, and has worked with the Transit Police, said the MBTA has not had funding for that training since 2006. She said there is a high rate of attrition among Transit Police officers, making regular trainings important. She praised the MBTA, though, as one of the few local law enforcement agencies actively pursuing such programs.

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