The Boston Common is not immune from the challenges found in many urban parks. The sale and use of illegal drugs are, unfortunately, not new in the park, but current conditions appear to be an acceleration of issues that have been with us for some years. Today, with most downtown offices at less than capacity and tourism just beginning to rebound, the foot traffic in our parks still shows the impact of the pandemic. And fewer people engaging in positive park activities provides opportunity for more negative activity.
Friends President Liz Vizza recently convened an interagency meeting to discuss the state of the situation on Boston Common. Representatives from the Boston Police, Boston Parks & Recreation, Park Rangers, the Suffolk County DA’s office, District City Councilors Bok and Flynn, the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau (managers of the Visitor Center), St. Anthony Shrine, and the Emergency Shelter Commission gathered to share their experiences and what their organizations are doing to address the issues.
Much of the conversation centered on providing resources to help those struggling with homelessness, mental health issues, and substance use disorders.
Captain Robert Ciccolo, BPD District Commander, shared that while the number of violent crimes is actually down in the area, the amount of low-level antisocial behavior is quite high.
MaryAnn Ponti, Director of Outreach at St. Anthony Shrine, shared that a common thread to the violence and drug deals seen on in the Common is a new substance called K2. K2 is a synthetic marijuana that is sprayed with or mixed with mind-altering chemicals. With withdrawal symptoms similar to those of opiate withdrawal, many users choose to stay in the park overnight so they can have continued access to K2. Many people taking K2 also have mental health issues, making the situation more precarious.
Outreach workers are on the Common daily, meeting with the unhoused and those suffering from substance abuse, providing services and recovery support. Most outreach workers are not dressed in an obvious uniform nor wear identification, making their presence less noticeable to passersby.
Park Rangers are also on duty on the Common every day, but, explained Ranger Chief Gene Survillo, while they can engage with those who violate park rules, they cannot write citations. Rangers are also not in the park past 4pm.
Captain Ciccolo stressed that if people feel unsafe on the Common and police are not visible, they should call 911. When calling, specific details are important. Police will be dispatched for each call, but officers need “Reasonable Suspicion” that a crime has, is, or is about to be committed in order to actually detain an individual. A full description, both of the person and their activity, as well as a precise location can be invaluable.
Jim Greene, Director of the Emergency Shelter Commission at the City’s Department of Neighborhood Development (DND), reinforced the need to call 911, not 311, if someone is in need of help.
While the 311 system is an outstanding tool for broken benches or vandalism in the parks, it can take up to 36 hours for a call to be processed, far too long to aid an individual in crisis or to respond to illicit behavior.
All those in attendance shared frustration with the current situation; solutions are not clear cut. But all agreed there is a role for the public to advocate not only for our parks, but for the people in our parks who are most vulnerable. This includes the importance of alerting the police to drug dealing and other illegal activity.
So, what can you do?
- Call 911, not 311
- Be as descriptive as possible when speaking with a dispatcher.
- Give your location in the park
- Describe the situation
- Provide a detailed description of what the person you are calling about looks like and is wearing.
- Know the organizations providing front-line services to the people in crisis in our parks. Here are some of the support organizations and individuals working in our parks: