Boston private security personnel accused of abusing authority

Sept. 2, 2008
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.

Thurau-Gray said Boston police need to alert people about the limitations of special police officers and distribute fliers describing residents' rights. Dunford said he was open to the suggestion.

Jack Connelly, president of Longwood Security, said he has not received complaints about his officers.

"I believe that officers conduct themselves in a very professional manner," he said. "If they don't, I'd like to hear about it because that's the expectation at all times without exception."

Connelly, a soft-spoken 55-year-old who founded Longwood in 1986, said the goal of the security officers is to watch over the neighborhoods, not intimidate residents and visitors.

"The goal is for the safety and tranquility of the communities," he said. "The goal is not to make an arrest."

Security officers also enforce trespass orders issued by the management companies that run housing complexes. Connelly said those orders are issued if a visitor had been caught doing anything from drinking in public to assault.

But defense attorneys representing some who have been charged with trespassing say management companies often issue orders arbitrarily.

"People are being harassed, stopped, searched, and really for walking down the street," said Cora Vestal, a public defender with the Committee for Public Counsel Services. She said she has a growing list of clients who have been stopped in private complexes by officers from Alliance Detective and Security Inc. and New World Security Associates.

A lawyer for Alliance declined to comment. An official at New World said only the branch manager of the company could comment and he is on vacation.

Ceredo Dean, a resident of Mission Main, a housing complex in Roxbury, said her neighbor's 22-year-old son was recently stopped and frisked twice in the same day, because New World officers were looking for a Hispanic man involved in a fight.

"I go to a lot of community meetings and I hear these things and it's very concerning to me," she said. "Who's going to be next? Grown men with jobs can't even sit on their front stoop without being harassed."

One recent incident in particular has increased tensions at Harbor Point. On July 4, Toya Calloway's 22-year-old daughter Shekasia was watching fireworks with friends near her mother's home. Longwood officers approached them, asked whether they were setting off fireworks, and - without asking permission - took their bag, she said. They found two bottles of Courvoisier, she said, emptying one and throwing the other into the water. A Harbor Point official later said it was a state trooper who threw out the liquor.

Later that night, the dispute escalated, according to a police report. Toya Calloway confronted the officers, who said that they were then pushed and kicked by some family members - an assertion Calloway denied. The officers used pepper spray on Toya and another daughter, who was 12, according to the report. Toya Calloway was arrested and charged with assault and battery on an officer; Shekasia was charged with disorderly conduct.

Connelly said he could not discuss the incident because it is a pending criminal matter, but Orlando Perilla, a resident of Harbor Point and executive director of the Harbor Point Community Task Force, said the officers acted appropriately.

"I always tell [the Longwood officers] no matter who it is, treat them with respect and dignity," Perilla said. "Always, if you're not professional, those things will come back to haunt us, sooner or later."