Police to lay off civilian liaisons

They are a link to city’s street life

By Meghan E. Irons and Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / February 9, 2010

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The Boston Police Department, even as it struggles to maintain fragile relationships with the city’s high-crime neighborhoods, plans to lay off civilian community liaisons who have played key roles bridging the divide between law enforcement and life on the streets.

Nine of 10 civilian liaison positions will be eliminated in September when funding for the jobs runs out. The loss of the liaisons, some of whom have been in the department more than 15 years, alarmed community leaders who have come to rely on them to help facilitate gang truces, aid domestic abuse victims, and act as go-betweens for immigrants who don’t speak English or are afraid to approach police.

“This will be a big loss, especially for our youths, because they need someone on the police side who can speak their language and who understands their culture,’’ said Phuongdai Nguyen, deputy director of the Vietnamese American Civic Association in Dorchester. “This will be a problem for us.’’

The Police Department lost all of its funding for the Same Cop Same Neighborhood grant, which came from the state Executive Office of Public Safety and funded the community service liaisons’ $45,000-$64,000 annual salaries for about the last five years.

The department employs three liaisons in Dorchester and one each in Mattapan, Hyde Park, downtown, Brighton, South Boston, and West Roxbury. Another works for the department’s Neighborhood Crime Watch. Several of them are immigrants who can speak the languages of those in the neighborhood.

Federal stimulus funding provided enough money to keep the liaisons in the department until September, said Elaine Driscoll, spokeswoman for the department. Commissioner Edward F. Davis hopes to find another source of funding to keep the liaisons, she said.

“Unfortunately, we’re in very tough financial times right now, and these are very difficult decisions that are being made,’’ Driscoll said.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who made community policing a key goal in his administration, declined to comment for this report. His spokeswoman, Dot Joyce, said: “Community policing is still the mayor’s top priority. We are all in difficult financial times.’’

Emmett Folgert, who runs the Dorchester Youth Collaborative in Fields Corner, said the liaisons’ work can be as simple as reaching out to parents of troubled children so they will meet with school police and as complex as quelling gang violence. Most recently, the liaisons helped calm tensions when a group of teenagers went to Braintree to attack another group of youths with a machete. With the help of the liaisons, community leaders persuaded both groups to stand down, Folgert said.

They are always on call, he said, and have also helped victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse come forward.

“They get their hands dirty,’’ Folgert said. “They get right in it. They’re not just people going to meetings.’’

There are at least two police officers in each of the city’s 11 districts who act as community service officers. One of them is a sergeant who supervises the office, which is intended to be a direct link to the community.

But some community leaders said the liaisons have long played essential roles in gaining the trust of residents who fear or resent the police.

“There is a big trust barrier here, so the liaisons are themselves a bridge between community members who don’t trust the uniform but who may see a need to connect with the department,’’ said Emmanuel Tikili, a program manager at the Boston TenPoint Coalition who works closely with police liaisons in Grove Hall.

The Rev. Eugene Rivers, an outspoken Dorchester pastor, said the liaisons attend weekly task force meetings with clergy and street workers in the Four Corners section of Dorchester. Often they review crime statistics in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan and help develop strategies to combat crime. The liaisons team with clergy street workers to visit at-risk youths at home, work with them to get jobs, or get them back to school to get their GED.

Slashing the positions would be “an unfortunate mistake,’’ Rivers said.

“To cut these positions would be to set back relations, particularly in the black community,’’ he said. “This would be the worst time for these cuts.’’