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November 14, 2002

Somerville may ban 'criminal loitering'

From: Boston Globe, MA
Nov. 14, 2002

By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff, 11/14/2002

Reacting to what officials have called ''intolerable crimes'' - three deaf children allegedly raped in two weeks - Somerville's Board of Aldermen is considering a move to give police broad powers to arrest suspected gang members for loitering in public places.

Somerville would become the second city in the state to consider seeking legislative approval for such aggressive gang-fighting measures at a time when the city's Davis Square is a growing destination for youth in search of nightlife.

''I'm trying to send a message loud and clear that these types of gangs and gang members are not wanted in Somerville, and if they don't leave the city, we'll lock them all up,'' said William Roche, the alderman who will introduce the proposed measure at tonight's meeting.

The proposed ordinance defines ''criminal loitering'' as ''remaining in any one place under circumstances that would warrant a reasonable person to believe that the purpose ... of that behavior is to enable a criminal street gang to establish control over identifiable areas.''

But Roche's proposal has raised concerns that the ordinance would legalize racial profiling and encourage police to violate basic constitutional rights.

''It's potentially draconian,'' said Denise Provost, a Somerville lawyer who serves on the Board of Aldermen. ''I would be very interested in hearing from the police how they think they could use it. I think it has the potential for abuse.''

If the ordinance passes in Somerville and the Legislature, Somerville police would have the power to ask ''known gang members'' to leave any public space immediately and not return for 12 hours. Failure to leave - or an early return - could result in arrest or a fine of up to $500. If arrested, offenders could be kept in jail for a minimum of 24 hours and a maximum of five days.

Somerville has struggled for more than a year with violent acts allegedly perpetrated by members of Salvadoran gang MS-13 and other gangs. The city council in Lynn, a city that has also had problems with MS-13, adopted a similar ordinance in September, but the Lynn mayor refuses to sign it.

''I think the ordinance has a lot of difficulties passing constitutional muster,'' said Lynn Mayor Edward ''Chip'' Clancy Jr. ''It sends the message that certain races aren't welcome.''

Clancy said a host of existing state laws give police the power to deal with violent gang behavior.

''It basically comes down to racial profiling,'' he said. ''I think the downside risk outweighs any potential value.''

But in Somerville, worried residents say it is time someone came forward with an aggressive plan.

Last May, a public meeting aired residents' fears about the number of MS-13 members moving into East Somerville. Over the summer, reputed MS-13 members were involved in a kidnapping. Two weeks ago, two deaf girls - ages 14 and 17 - were allegedly raped by six members of MS-13 in Foss Park as they made their way home from a Dunkin' Donuts. One of the girls has cerebral palsy and was pulled from her wheelchair and thrown onto a park bench, prosecutors said.

Then last Saturday night, a 10-year-old who lives just blocks from Foss Park was allegedly raped in a nearby house. Jesus Arbaiza, a 21-year-old Salvadoran man with no known ties to MS-13, was charged on Tuesday with the assault.

Last Thursday, law enforcement officers told about 250 worried Somerville residents that police don't have the power to arrest people who are not committing crimes, so rounding up suspected gang members is often a difficult process.

''It's just so intolerable,'' said Bruce Desmond, a Somerville alderman who has four children. ''Just by the mere fact of the violence, the three girls that were raped, and their ages and their handicaps. ... We have to do something. If Bill Roche's plan can help at all, then I'm all for it.''

Desmond said he is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of aggressive action against the gang by Somerville Police Chief George F. McLean.

McLean and Somerville police spokesman Lieutenant Francis Kelly did not return repeated calls for comment.

''Since May, we've been putting our faith in the new police chief, who had assured us that he was on top of the MS-13 gang,'' Desmond said. ''We would like to see a forceful, or at least concrete, plan of action on the part of the police chief, and I didn't get the sense that he had one.''

This story ran on page B3 of the Boston Globe on 11/14/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.