Reaction mixed to police focus on Fens

Some feel it puts civil rights at risk

By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / September 21, 2009

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A few weeks ago, the strollers, gardeners, and joggers who use the Back Bay Fens began noticing something different. Parked right in front of the tall, wild reeds that line the Muddy River was an idling police cruiser.

A few days later, an unmarked cruiser slowly rolled down the grassy patch that separates the thicket of reeds and the park’s famed Victory Gardens. Another time, it was a large blue and white prisoner transport truck.

For the last few weeks, police in cars and motorcycles have patrolled the Fens off Boylston Street for about 16 hours a day, a move that has thrilled many of the gardeners, who want to tend their radishes, tomatoes, and dahlias without encountering debris from some of the more unsavory uses of the park. But one person’s vision of a cleaner, safer park is another person’s possible civil rights violation. Some are concerned that the patrols may be targeting gay men, who often use the reeds as cover for their trysts.

“Our experience in the past is that whenever police go into a gay cruising area, civil rights problems result,’’ said Don Gorton, president of the Anti-Violence Project of Massachusetts, a gay-rights advocacy group. “Oftentimes when there are reports or concerns [about crime], the police go in and sweep everyone out. They say ‘leave.’ And that tends to deny gay men access to public land. And that’s discrimination. That’s the danger we’re trying to avoid.’’

Police say they are there only to deter crime that has long plagued the park, including vandalism, assaults, robberies, and drug dealing. The patrols, which will continue indefinitely, were ordered after Fenway residents said they were worried that the loss of the mounted horse unit would worsen crime in the Fens.

In July, the department disbanded the unit, which often patrolled the Fens, as part of department-wide budget cuts.

“We’re targeting people who are engaging in behavior that’s destructive to others: vandalism, the drug abuse,’’ said Superintendent-in-chief Daniel Linskey.

Bill Richardson, president of the Fenway Civic Association, said the reeds have long given criminals cover.

“It provides an easy access for crime,’’ Richardson said. “People get mugged. The reeds make a quick and easy getaway.’’

If the police presence also has the effect of deterring public sex, many of the parkgoers see that as a welcome development, while others contend the patrols are overly oppressive. For many who tend the Fenway Victory Gardens, sex in the reeds has been a bane. Gardeners say they have often found used condoms, soiled clothes, and other garbage discarded in their rose bushes.

Tim Horn, president of the Fenway Garden Society, said that one afternoon, he saw two men having sex inside the gardens.

“Whatever [police] have to do to get our gardens safe, I’m willing to follow along,’’ Horn said, adding that since the police have been present, he has seen more families and children at the park.

On a recent sunny afternoon, the Fens was filled with people. As dusk fell, gardeners worked their plots, couples walked, and people napped under trees.

Michael Smith of Dedham walked near the reeds with his partner, who identified himself as John, and their English mastiff, Roxy. As Roxy rolled in the grass, a blue-and-white police cruiser slowly drove by and parked. Both men were happy to see the officer.

“It’s about time they put their foot down,’’ Smith said.

“You’ve got people fixing their gardens who shouldn’t come the next day finding rubbers, garbage,’’ said John.

But Dennis Sullivan, a 43-year-old gardener, said he has heard from other gardeners who said they were approached by officers asking them what they were doing in the park.

“It’s kind of overkill,’’ he said of the patrols. “It’s effective, but at what cost? It makes people kind of uncomfortable.’’

Horn said that soon after the police began showing up at the park, dozens of plots were vandalized in a move that some saw as retaliation for the patrols. After that, police began spending even more time in the park, Linskey said. But he emphasized that officers have not arrested anyone for public sex and that the goal of their increased presence was never to deter sex in the reeds. Linskey and Gorton, along with other groups representing gay rights, plan to meet tomorrow to discuss potential civil rights violations. Gorton asked for the meeting after he read of the increased police presence in Bay Windows, a weekly paper about the gay community.

Civil rights lawyers say that people engaging in sexual activity outdoors are not breaking the law as long as they are shielding themselves from public view.

“If two consenting adults are out of the view of the public not engaging in drug activity, not assaulting people, I don’t really feel that’s an issue we need to get concerned with,’’ Linskey said. “My concern is people who are involved in robberies, people who are involved in vandalism, people who are there to harm others.’’

Maria Cramer can be reached at