Not Your Older Brother’s MBTA Police

by Lisa H. Thurau

Last month, a spirited group of youth voiced their concerns about being treated disrespectfully by police. They were organized by the Hyde Square Task Force (HSTF). They were articulate. They made reasonable demands. And four days later, their demands were taken seriously.

By the MBTA Transit Police.

That’s right, that’s the same state police agency that a decade ago responded to another group of youth, parents and advocates by refusing to negotiate or comply with public records requests by the Massachusetts Black Caucus. This was the same agency that had to be dragged into court to address the complaints against them for systematic violation of youths’ civil rights and instances of unlawful detention and assault and battery.

Now the MBTA Transit Police is modeling how to respond to community complaints in a proactive and respectful manner.

The recent interaction with the HSTF demonstrates that the MBTA Transit Police of 2010 is not the department of 10 years ago. Since the 2001 lawsuit on behalf of 11 young plaintiffs was settled in 2003, the MBTA Transit Police has done something few departments do when they are sued: they changed.

So when Claudio Martinez, executive director of the HSTF proclaims that it is common knowledge that you “can’t take on a state police agency in Massachusetts,” I am only too happy to disagree. I am even happier to report that after taking them on, you can work collaboratively with them and with great outcomes.

Consider these statistics: in 2001, there were 680 arrests of juveniles by the MBTA Transit Police. From 2004 to 2006, more than 180 MBTA officers received intensive two-day trainings on how to understand teens and improve interactions. By 2009, the number of arrests fell to 84, an 88 percent decrease in arrests.

This is why Mr. Martinez of HSTF rightly states that arrests are not the issue. Neither are complaints about excessive and unreasonable use of force against youth the issue. The MBTA has not received any complaints from or on behalf of youth in the HSTF — or other youth advocacy groups. And that’s not because its internal affairs system is broken: I know it works because I’ve used it on behalf of youth I thought were mistreated in 2008.
Disrespectful treatment of youth is hardly limited to the MBTA Transit Police who represent less than 10 percent of the city’s public police forces. And it’s not limited to police for that matter, as Mr. Martinez, a member of the Boston School Committee, surely knows from experience.

The HSTF’s decision to focus on the MBTA is especially astonishing in view of the fact that of all the security forces in Boston, the MBTA is recognized as having made the greatest strides in improving the quality and kinds of interactions with youth and the other adults who take care of them, including parents, youth workers, clergy, school administrators and school attendance officers. In fact these partners were all at the HSTF’s demonstration in a show of support for the new approaches used by the MBTA.

One of the MBTA’s initiatives, Truancy Watch, the brainchild of Lt. Det. Mark Gillespie, represents the essence of community policing. In Massachusetts, police have no legal authority to arrest truant youth. The MBTA officers received youth development training that led them to realize that truancy is a powerful predictor of delinquency. That fact and the number of complaints the MBTA receives about truant youth congregating in T stops led Chief MacMillan and Lt. Det. Gillespie to treat truancy as an opportunity to intervene constructively with youth.

The MBTA Transit officers realized that many youth need empathy and mentoring: some suffer from dire poverty, homelessness, depression, being bullied and teen pregnancy. And it was the Truancy Watch team that questioned one principal’s policy of sending girls to the T after suspending them for wearing skirts he considered too short.

The MBTA Transit Police strongly advocated with leadership of the Boston Public Schools to do something for truant youth. It turns out that when the police advocate for improved services for youth, folks listen. The BPS moved to create a re-engagement center for truant youth and those on the verge of dropping out. At this fully staffed center, truant youths’ needs are evaluated, parents are involved and there is a collaborative, constructive effort to get to the root of the truancy.

The MBTA Transit Police has learned the importance of meaningful encounters with youth, and is doing a better job of listening to youth, and reducing the potential for youth disorder and crime. Whatever your experience with them, what is undeniable is that they are trying hard and working with community partners. I hope the HSTF considers joining the team.