Boston private security personnel accused of abusing authority

City residents say guards have created a 'climate of mistrust and fear'

One woman said the private police officer patrolling her housing complex used chemical spray on her 12-year-old daughter after a July 4th confrontation.

A Dorchester teenager said the officers, known as "special police officers," threatened to arrest her and her friends if they did not leave the sidewalk where they had gathered for an impromptu vigil commemorating a dead friend.

A tenant organizer in Grove Hall said one special police officer mistook a man for a prowler and reduced him to tears, after forbidding him entry to his apartment, even though he had shown his identification card and house key.

More than 200 of these security officers patrol private housing complexes, hospitals, and universities around Boston. They are licensed by Boston police and contracted by private management companies that pay for the benefit of private security.

But some residents, lawyers, and tenant organizers say the officers often abuse their authority and intimidate teenagers on public streets. They have created a climate of mistrust and fear, some residents and tenant supporters say.

"I hate living here," Toya Calloway, a 44-year-old mother of eight who lives in Harbor Point in Dorchester, which is patrolled by Longwood Security Services. "I feel like I'm being watched."

Special police officers have many of the same powers as city police. They can carry guns, make arrests, and search people they suspect of committing a crime.

They must obey rules set by the Boston Police Department, which are similar to those followed by city officers. The department can revoke or suspend the license of an officer who is caught with drugs, abuses a prisoner, or violates any of the rules.

Some residents said they welcome the extra security in a city where regular police are too busy with stabbings and shootings to chase away the troublesome teenagers, homeless people, and drug addicts who sometimes crowd their neighborhoods.

"If they didn't think there was any security around at all, we would be inundated 24/7," said Lois Lee, a 65-year-old tenant leader who lives in a private development along Blue Hill Avenue. Boston police "are not coming up here if you tell them someone is shooting up dope in your back yard or someone is sleeping in your hallway. That's not a priority call to them."

Others, however, said they do not know how to hold the officers accountable if they abuse their authority. Many do not know where to file a complaint. Those who do worry they could be evicted or harassed by an officer they have to face almost every day.

The fear of retaliation leads to silence, said Lisa Thurau-Gray, former managing director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School and a lawyer who said she has heard complaints from people at Harbor Point.

"There is no assurance that state and federal law is being followed and that there is redress when it isn't," she said. "There is no oversight."

Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief Robert Dunford said residents can complain to the district captain in their neighborhood about special police officers, but the department seldom gets complaints. So far this year, two people have filed complaints, he said. People who think they have been mistreated should go to the department.

"We want to be open, and we want to have as much communication as possible so people can feel they can make a complaint without a sense that they're going to be retaliated against," Dunford said.

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