Banned in Boston again?

By DAVE O'BRIAN  |  November 14, 2006

Perhaps more telling, though, is an unpublicized section of the SIU report wherein a three-year pattern of very direct police reaction to coverage of downtown troubles clearly emerges.  From early 1973 through the fall of 1975, the period covered by the report, it’s clear that the instances of Zone raids and arrests rises and falls in direct proportion to press reports.  In every case cited, there is a pattern of media criticism, followed by a couple of weeks’ worth of dramatic District One raids, followed by a month of total police inactivity.  Then the press would report more troubles, demand action, and the pattern would repeat itself.

Conversely, the report at one point cites a Herald American feature (in April of 1974, before zoning) praising the undercover activities of the TPF in the area, followed by two months of no raids and few arrests by District One.  The Herald story, the report concludes, “provided the opportunity for the Command Staff to neglect their primary responsibility for such criminality.” True enough, but the pattern also shows that District One could, and did, conduct raids whenever it wanted-that, in other words, the cops down there knew perfectly well what was happening in the streets.

Certainly, the SIU investigators did.  Their report cites, by name, seven District One hotels-and one posh apartment house-used so frequently by hookers that the owners routinely designated “certain rooms which were and are held aside for illegal sexual activity and not rented to regular customers.”  The report also cites, by name and location, three movie houses, five parking lots, and one bathhouse routinely used for illegal sexual purposes.

Most significantly, though, the report cites a spread of aggressive streetwalking activity in the Combat Zone and Park Square, a development that was actually getting out of hand well before the zoning amendment now blamed for this phenomenon was passed.  In 1973, the report observes, most hookers would approve their would-be clients individually, head for some discreet location, and later return to the same spot.  But by early 1974, said hookers began traveling in packs and behaving in a “more aggressive, less discriminate” manner.  The zoning change, remember, did not happen until November, 1974.

Not that it helped.  Some law enforcement sources pointed to police frustration with court attitudes as a big part of the problem.  They note, for example, that after the zoning changed one district court judge began handing out $25 fines to prostitutes arrested within the Zone, and jail sentences to those arrested elsewhere.  Barney Frank, for one, defended such a policy as “perfectly appropriate” (since streetwalking is more of a nuisance in a residential neighborhood than a commercial district), but there can be little doubt that this encouraged the gangs of hooker/muggers that had already begun gravitating toward Washington and LaGrange Streets, fondling passersby, picking pockets, and causing a general ruckus.

Nor can there be much doubt that tolerance of such goings-on led directly to the highly publicized tragedy that, with the intemperate release of the SIU report and the swearing-in of a new Police Commissioner, led to last winter’s massive Combat Zone crackdown, which has the place looking, even now, like an overpoliced ghost town.

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