Vigilantes and volunteers

By SHARON BASCO  |  August 14, 2008

There was more discussion. Someone complained that people came to meetings only when something terrible happened, and that when things quieted down they lost interest, and "it goes back to business as usual."

Bollings took the floor again. "Do the Italians rip off each other in Hanover Street? No! Because they take care of their own. And as soon as we start taking care of our own we'll start to have secure streets at night."

From Mattapan, the North End looks like a haven of tranquility, but Hanover Street is not always as safe as its residents would like. During the winter, a voluntary neighborhood patrol was formed in an attempt to reduce the number of burglaries. That patrol was disbanded after a couple of months because Little City Hall manager Charles Falco felt that "These vigilantes ... can get out of hand. We have other ways of dealing with community problems here. Some way or other we have a way of finding the source of the crime ... And before it goes any further we come down with the fist. We start talking to people.

"In the North End on a Saturday afternoon you walk around and you can smell spaghetti and meat balls," Falco said. "We have it all in common. Almost like a reservation. We have customs, heritage the same. We have roots here ... ethnic background. We have respect for each other. Kids have respect for their parents. They need to have that ... because if the parents can't control them, who the hell can control them?" Ethnic identity may work in the North End, but what about the racially mixed neighborhoods that comprise most of the city? Falco answered, "I don't have answers for everything. We were always able to take care of our own ... but this business of trying to mix racial groups ..." He sat back, folded his hands across his stomach and shook his head slowly from side to side. "I don't see an answer to that."
No Answer
Walter Jabzanka doesn't have the answer either, but as acting director of the Mayor's Safe Streets Committee he spends most of his time trying to find one. Citizen security is one of the categories in the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration's funding, and the Safe Streets Committee has taken advantage of that federal offer to the tune of $300,000 a year for Boston proper. Jabzanka has organized six programs throughout the city with those funds, ranging from community patrols to recreational equipment and educational programs about the best hardware (locks, lights, screens) for security. He, like Falco, mistrusts patrols.

"Volunteer groups start with great furor and passion, but the fervor dies down when you're walking the route. Paid or volunteer, there are very few successful neighborhood patrols in the country," Jabzanka said. "And then there's the problem of vigilante groups that become power-hungry, authority-hungry. A guy gets turned on by the uniform and really thinks he's Napoleon." He mentioned one such situation in a western Massachusetts city where the neighbors retaliated by "beating the crap out of the patrolman. That was the end of their vigilante force." Still Jabzanka likes to see neighborhood patrols organized to take a hand in crime control.
Bromley Heath Patrol
"It's bullshit to say security is a job only for the pros, the cops. They just don't have time to go after everything you wish they could." Because he feels that way, Jabzanka spends $150,000 of the LEAA funds a year to support a paid neighborhood patrol in the high-crime community of  Bromley-Heath out by Mission Hill where the South End, Jamaica Plain and Roxbury merge. "It's the best example of a patrol in Boston," he said. He could add that it's the only paid patrol in Boston, but that fact speaks for itself. No other patrol can afford the equipment (radios, uniforms) or a staff of 14 full-timers.

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