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November 14, 2002

Residents demand gang answers

From: Somerville Journal, MA
Nov. 14, 2002

By Hillary Chabot / Journal Staff
Thursday, November 14, 2002

Fearful residents lined up to grill city officials about an increase in violent gang crime in East Somerville at a neighborhood meeting last week.

At least 200 people crammed into the East Somerville School auditorium and stood in line to question Mayor Dorothy Kelly Gay, Police Chief George McLean, Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley and other police and city officials about city efforts to combat the gang. The meeting was held in response to growing violence by an El Salvadorian gang called MS-13 that peaked with the rape of two teenage, deaf girls at Foss Park on Oct. 24 allegedly by three gang members.

"This is not a random incident, this has been going on for a while. Now what are you going to do about it?" said Christine Dover, a parent who used to live in East Somerville.

Pauline Iacopucci felt the meeting was useful for the community, citing the ability to air grievances as healing. That doesn't erase her complaints about the plight of East Somerville, however.

"Every problem we've ever had has been ignored. We're working-class families most of us, and we've lived here all of out lives. I feel like I'm being forced out," Iacopucci said.

Kelly Gay described steps that the city was taking to increase safety in East Somerville, including establishing a gang hotline for citizens to call, cleaning up and increasing lighting and patrols at Foss Park and getting greater support from the state police gang unit.

But Charlene Harris, whose then 12-year-old daughter was raped at Foss Park by MS-13 gang members two years ago, cautioned officials about the waning of resources after the shock of a violent incident fades.

"Once things died down those kids are still there and there's no police," Harris said. "I hope and pray that this time it'll be different."

At the Thursday night meeting, East Somerville resident Dawn McAshley asked why Somerville does not have a gang unit and questioned why the Somerville detective dedicated to gangs didn't work at night.

McLean responded that East Somerville's two community officers who work at night, along with the rest of the patrols, are capable of doing anything a gang unit could do.

According to Somerville police, the city has 40 recognized MS-13 members living in Somerville. The city of Lowell, by comparison, has more than 300 gang members, according to Lowell Capt. William Taylor. Lowell has about 20,000 more people than Somerville. Taylor said that the gang unit, consisting of seven officers who work solely on gang identification and prevention, has been helpful.

"It's been very positive and effective. It's one of the tools we use in trying to stop gang violence," Taylor said.

Lowell's gang unit practices what he calls preventative maintenance. The officers frequently visit known hotspots such as parks where gangs hang out and stop cars in areas known for violence, Taylor said. When officers come across groups congregating, they conduct short interviews and record a description of each person and the people they're hanging out with.

Somerville police do the same thing, according to Somerville police Lt. Frank Kelley.

Although the mayor pointed to increased support from the state police, some residents questioned the ability of the state police to effectively monitor Foss Park when officers from the local state police barracks, located in Medford, must also cover a region stretching from Charlestown to Reading and from Revere to Chelsea.

Although State Police Major Hal Ameral, the troop commander for the Medford barracks, said that the barracks only has 32 officers, he said that the officers do what they can. "We try to do the best we can with the limited resources we have," Ameral said.

Harris also encouraged neighborhood members to start a community watch to keep gang activity from rising. Other citizens, including acting Youth Director Silvio Almanzar, warned of a backlash against Somerville's Latino residents.

"We need to be recognized as part of the community," said Almanzar, who asked for translators to be provided at the meetings for the Latino community.

The mayor opened Thursday's meeting by criticizing a story published in the Journal last week that reported that the Somerville Police did not have a gang unit and had only one officer dedicated to fighting gangs in Somerville. She said that reporting the information was a "public safety hazard.''

Kelly Gay states in a Journal column published today that several Somerville officers are constantly working on gang issues in addition to their other duties and have been able to identify and arrest many MS-13 members that way (see page 8). The mayor added that the sheer number of gang members in Somerville does not "warrant the full-time dedication of a large number of officers when there are also significant state and resources available."

Kelly Gay will hold a series of meeting all over Somerville to address the increase in gang violence, mayor's spokesman Bill Doncaster said.

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