On March 10, Somerville police, responding to reports of a large fight near Pearl Street and McGrath Highway, stopped six teenage boys walking in the area. The youths later told the Somerville Journal that one officer accused them of being gang members and treated them roughly, banging one boy's head against the cruiser. The officer, Michael Silva, denied the account. The incident is currently under investigation by Somerville's police chief.
Last weekend, at the third annual Somerville Peace Conference, held at Somerville High School, more than 600 people — many in their teens — vented their frustrations with similar perceived offenses against the young local population. The event, which was organized by the nonprofit Teen Empowerment group, featured skits, speeches, and raps focusing on violence, job loss, addiction, and family problems.
Fifteen-year-old Nickolas Teixeira, a conference performer who says he knows some of the teens involved in last month's alleged roughing up, explained to the Peace Conference crowd that he had attended Teen Empowerment youth/police dialogues in the past — but when he had a run-in with the cops himself, police still treated him badly.
"Some of the officers [involved] were the same guys that I had met," he said. "They were disrespectful, swore at us, accused me of lying. . . . They insisted that I was a member of a Latin gang." Claiming he was not a gang member, Teixeira went on, "I am not even Latino. I'm Portuguese."
"When you get in trouble," Teixeira later told the Phoenix, "the first thing they ask you is what gang are you in."
Somerville police spokesman Paul Upton says the gang question is a standard part of the booking process. Cops pay attention to kids who hang out with gang members, he says, because "We try to identify these kids who might be heading in the wrong direction." In fact, Upton believes Somerville has fewer than 20 serious gang members.
Even so, several other teenagers who performed at the conference told the Phoenix that they believe police routinely jump to conclusions. Cops "put a label on you without knowing who you are," says 19-year-old Diana Estime. John Norena, 15, says police consider teens guilty by association for having friends in gangs.
Somerville Police Chief Anthony Holloway, an African-American recruited from out of state who's headed the department since January 2008, says Somerville is making changes to improve gang-member identification. "I don't want it to be just word-of-mouth," he says, noting that accusations of gang affiliation shouldn't be based on something like "Tony Holloway's wearing red and he's from X country."
Understanding goes both ways, of course, and the kids at the peace conference seemed to know this. Conference skits included a stressed-but-caring "cop dad," incorporated, according to 15-year-old performer Tyler Holmes, to "show there's more than one perspective to each story."
Somerville mayor Joe Curtatone addressed the March 10 incident straight on. "Let's face it, we still have a lot of work that needs to be done," he said at the conference. "We're taking all steps necessary to make sure this relationship" — between teens and police — "is moving in the right direction."
He then asked for a round of applause for the police. It drew a lukewarm response.