Following a series of muggings near Orange Line MBTA stops in Jamaica Plain, local law enforcement and elected officials met with neighborhood residents at the Nate Smith House on Lamartine Street last week to discuss the extra efforts made by local police and the ways pedestrians could make themselves safer.
The muggings came in a steady stream starting around September 2009 — when five people were robbed between 6:00 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. on a single Tuesday night — through the end of last year, mostly around the Stony Brook T stop. So far they have declined this year, though it’s difficult to know whether that’s due to increased police patrols in the area, the winter weather or another factor.
Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis, who led the meeting along with officers from the District 13 police station, which serves Jamaica Plain, said his department was “very actively working on some important cases” and in recent weeks “the detectives here have made some significant arrests.”
But Davis and others cautioned that residents must remain vigilant. State Rep. Elizabeth A. Malia, whose district includes parts of Jamaica Plain, Roslindale, Roxbury and Dorchester, said that the concerns aroused by the robberies presented an opportunity for neighbors to connect and work together.
“If you haven’t been involved in your community before,” she said, “if you haven’t connected to the monthly police meeting, and you don’t know who your next-door neighbors are, and you haven’t thought about some of these issues, this [meeting] is the best thing we could possibly be doing right now.”
Malia encouraged residents to join a neighborhood crime watch or start one if there wasn’t one already.
Sgt. Eric Krause, the community service officer for District 13, said that police in Jamaica Plain had arrested 24 people on robbery charges since November, mostly young people in their teens or early 20’s, usually working in groups of two or more.
Krause said the thieves take “cell phones, cash, electronics, jewelry,” often watching people as they leave the T station to see if they’re talking on the phone or listening to music.
District 13 commander Capt. John Greland said in several cases the victims were unable to identify the robbers because they were distracted by their cell phones and iPods.
“The person has the headphones on and they’re walking and they’re listening to their music and their mind is a million miles away,” Greland said. “[The thieves] come up, they grab it, and they’re gone, and [the victim] can’t give us a description. And unfortunately they take the cellphone and we don’t get a call from the victim until they get home.”
Greland said it’s rare for police to find the same thieves behind more than one robbery — that instead these quick-grab robberies have become a fad for many teens. Davis explained that “these young kids really don’t understand the significance of what they’re doing. They get together with other kids from school … and it’s sort of a lark that they do this.”
Davis said the teens don’t realize that it’s “a very serious crime that will follow them forever if they get arrested for it.”
Krause said only seven of the 24 who have been arrested lived in the neighborhood, indicating that people from other parts of the city and region have come to Jamaica Plain because word has gotten out that these robberies are often successful. Suffolk County Sheriff Andrea J. Cabral said teens are using email and Twitter to share tips on how to pull off a successful mugging.
Some neighborhood residents expressed concern that not enough was being done to combat the robberies. Kathie Mainzer, co-owner of popular neighborhood restaurant Bella Luna, said members of her staff, restaurant customers, and her two teenaged nephews had been mugged in the area and that she was concerned that there were lights at Stony Brook station that had been burned out for two months or more, despite repeated reports to the MBTA.
Davis told Mainzer he had a meeting scheduled with Mayor Thomas Menino the following morning and would speak with him about the lighting issue and also follow up with the MBTA.
Betsy Cowan, executive director of Egleston Square Main Street, said that on Thursday, Feb. 11, at 7:15 she had seen officers posted at Stony Brook playing solitaire in the police cruiser.
Greland encouraged her to let him know right away if she saw officers not focused on their duties. “You could have called me, Betsy,” he said. “You’ve got my email.”
Cabral cautioned that residents must be on their guard. “As boring as the train is, as many things as you see on the train that you don’t want to actually see,” she said, “don’t put the iPod in. Don’t talk on your cell phone. Don’t be distracted. There are people sitting on the train whose only reason for being on the train is to see what’s in your backpack.”
Cabral said thieves can follow a person off the train, rob him or her, and then get right back on the train to make their getaway. To protect yourself, she said, pay attention to what’s around you.
“A lot of it does have to do with the way you carry yourself,” she said, “especially when you’re walking. Make it clear that you know what your surroundings are … you are looking straight ahead, you are looking to the left intermittently, you are looking to the right intermittently. You know who’s around you.”
Marie Turley, executive director of the Boston Women’s Commission and a longtime resident of Union Avenue, closed the meeting with a historical perspective. “For those of us who talk about crime watches the way we do,” she said, “it’s because there were times in Jamaica Plain of very different crime than we’re seeing right now.
“We did it a long time ago; we didn’t have to do it for a long time, but it’s a different time again, and these meetings are where we begin to talk about how we become connected.”