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MBTA police promise to mend relationship with teens

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
MBTA police promise to mend relationship with teens
MBTA Police Chief Paul MacMillan says he will work with youth organizers to better relations between transit police and the teens who use the MBTA, but would not commit to specific demands presented by youths at the Hyde Square Task Force. (Photo: Yawu Miller)

Youth organizers from the Hyde Square Task Force are calling on the MBTA’s transit police to create a youth advisory board, hold mandatory professional training for officers and re-instate the Transit Police Advisory Board with a minimum of two seats for youth.

The organizers read their demands at a press conference held Monday at Jackson Square and attended by MBTA Police Chief Paul MacMillan and other officers.

MacMillan said he would not commit to the organizers’ demands, but pledged to work with them to help improve relations between MBTA police and the youths who use the system.

“We are going to have open and honest dialogue about the behavior of our police and the behavior of youth on the T,” he said.

The Task Force organizers used the press conference to publicize the findings of their survey of 700 youths who ride the T and detail the allegations of police harassment they say they have documented.

The allegations, many of which they presented in written testimony culled from the survey, include general rudeness, racial epithets and physical coercion.

In response to the allegations detailed by the Task Force, MBTA Lt. Detective Mark Gillespie spoke about the department’s collaborations with members of other agencies, including probation officers, street workers and members of the clergy to help reduce crime on the MBTA and mediate conflicts with youths, rather than resorting to arrest.

The arrest rate for youths on the MBTA has dropped from a high of 680 in 2001 to 74 in 2009.

“This appears to be a situation where someone may not be seeing the forest through the trees,” Gillespie said. “The proof is in the arrest rate.”

Following Gillespie, state Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez urged the MBTA officers to listen carefully to the youths’ complaints.

“I know this is an uncomfortable situation for those of you who are wearing a badge,” he said, turning toward the transit brass and probation officers assembled at the press conference. “It’s not about the arrest rate. It’s about the relationships. It’s about what the teens are feeling.”

Carla Poulos, coordinator of organizing and policy initiatives at the Task Force, read from the job description for MBTA police, noting that officers are responsible for the “protection of life and property, upholding the constitutional rights of all people, ensuring a safe environment within the transit system.”

“If in fact that is the job description, then doesn’t that mean that Boston teens have the right to public transportation without physical abuse?” Poulos said. “Without emotional abuse? Without being called racially derogatory names and slurs? Don’t our Boston teens of color have the same constitutional rights as everyone else?”

After the press conference MacMillan told reporters he disagreed with Poulos, who accused the MBTA of practicing institutional racism against the mostly black and Latino students who ride the T.

“I think what we need to do is work together with the youth, identify the issues and work collaboratively to address the issues,” he said.

Youth organizer Sheila Reyes expressed disappointment with MacMillan’s response to the Task Force demands.

“It would have been better if he had been more clear about what he will do,” she said.

Youth organizer Waldy Nova said he was not surprised by MacMillan’s response.

“I wish it would have been different,” he said. “I wish they would have taken our data more seriously. The data represents 700 youth. It shows it’s not a perception issue. It’s something real.”

Teens interviewed by a Banner reporter said they were not surprised by the results of the Task Force survey.

Malcolm Johnson, who graduated recently from the Media and Technical Charter High School said he was regularly patted down and searched by MBTA police without probable cause.

“At the time, I thought it was legal,” he said. “It wasn’t until I graduated that I learned it was illegal.”