An MBTA police officer watches as students make their way through the Forest Hills Station on the Orange Line. More than 20,000 students use the MBTA to get to and from school. Organizers at the Hyde Square Task Force say a survey of 700 students points to a pattern of police abuse. (Ernesto Arroyo photo)
A majority of the 700 youth surveyed by the Hyde Square Task Force said MBTA police do not respect them and do not make them feel safe riding the T.
The survey, released last week, also found that 35 percent of the youth had witnessed a transit police officer using insults with racially-charged words and that 48 percent had witnessed police officers pushing or shoving youths.
The Task Force youth organizers conducted the survey outside train stations and in schools during February, March and April of this year after hearing repeated complaints from their peers about transit officers.
They worked with a professional pollster to generate a set of questions and also solicited comments from youths who took the survey.
Among the findings from the survey: 75 percent of the teens disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that “transit police are skilled in communicating with teens;” 66 percent of the teens disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that “transit police are successful in making teens feel safe while riding the T;” and 76 percent of the teens agree or strongly agree with the statement that “transit police could use training in how to communicate in a positive manner with youth.”
In the comments submitted, some students’ responses included complaints of police using racial epithets, illegally confiscating bus passes, kicking students out of stations and conducting illegal searches.
“When I was standing on the platform waiting for a friend, a cop told me I had to leave,” one respondent wrote. “When I asked why they threw me down on the ground and put their knees in my back and arrested me saying I was trespassing.”
The Task Force organizers who worked on the survey said they had either witnessed or experienced much of what the survey respondents reported.
“There’s no mutual respect between youths and the MBTA police,” said youth organizer Sheila Reyes.
MBTA Police Chief Paul MacMillan, who met with the Task Force youths last week to discuss the study, said his agency plans to work on solutions with the teens.
“We will be working with the Hyde Square Task Force to come up with a plan of action to improve the relations we have with the youth,” he said.
MacMillan said the MBTA police have to balance the needs of the 20,000 students who ride the system every day with the needs of other passengers.
“We receive many complaints from other passengers that youth are hanging out in stations, blocking doorways,” he said. “Notwithstanding the results of this survey, our officers are doing a good job.”
MacMillan noted that the number of arrests of juveniles has dropped from nearly 700 in 2001 to 85 in 2008 and 74 in 2009.
“Clearly the work we’ve done over the years has been paying off,” he said.
MBTA police are now working with faith-based organizations, Boston police, school police and street workers to improve outreach to and interactions with youth, MacMillan said.
“But clearly, based on the results of this survey, there is room to grow,” he added.
The tension between youths and law enforcement is by no means limited to the MBTA. Youth rights advocates complain of frequent 4th Amendment violations by Boston police officers as well as MBTA officers.
But few organizations have done any work on the issue.
“I’m glad the Hyde Square Task Force is documenting what’s going on, because the general public is afraid that if they complain, they’ll be targeted for further harassment,” said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.
The Task Force youth said their ultimate aim is to build a better relationship between the police and the students who ride the T.
“The majority of youth are students,” said youth organizer Waldy Nova. “They commute to school on the MBTA. We have to see [MBTA officers] every day.”
When Waldy Nova sees an MBTA cop approaching, he says, several scenarios run through his head. “I automatically assume I’m going to get talked down to, searched, arrested or kicked out of the station,” he says.
Nova knows his experience is not unique. He knows because he has witnessed numerous altercations between MBTA officers and students. He also knows this because he and his fellow youth organizers at the Hyde Square Task Force have conducted surveys with more than 700 Boston teenagers to assess the relations between the cops and the students. More »
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