When it comes to keeping an eye on the neighborhood, nothing works like the people.

That’s the message that about 100 people took home from a meeting at the American Legion Post #440 in Nonantum on Monday night. The meeting was held in response to a series of complaints about incidents along the bike path on the Charles River and was organized by the Nonantum Neighborhood Association, Ald. Ted Hess-Mahan and Ald. Alison Leary.

The problem, according to police, is that people simply don’t report problems. “We were’t aware it was a problem because people weren’t calling us,” said Newton Police Lt. Bruce Apotheker.

That’s why it took a much more public incident, the rape reported on September 21, to draw attention. One by one police from Watertown, Waltham, Newton and the State Police Barracks in Brighton stood up to note how few calls they’ve received about incidents along the river.

This even as residents noted issues ranging from trash to seeing an apparent member of the homeless population in distress.

Despite the stories, overall, police say, the path remains very safe and well patrolled. Newton Police regularly patrol with bicycles, especially at night, and State Police run random patrols with troopers both on foot and on horses.

“We live in a safe community and a great area,” stressed Apotheker.

Still, there is a growing homeless problem in the area, not just in Newton but in parks from Boston on out through Weston.

Lt. Martin Gaughan, who manages the state police barracks in Brighton, said he’s seen an increase in homeless in the area in recent years, but isn’t sure of the cause. He broke the local homeless population into three broad groups:

  • Young transients — These tend to be in the 18 to 24 year old range and come to Boston during the warm summer months. As the weather turns, they head off to warmer locales.
  • Mentally ill — People who, for various reasons, are out on the streets but often refuse help and refuse to go to shelters.
  • Drug addicts — One of the largest problem groups, but police are hopeful that police changes put in place by Governor Baker can have an impact here.

Even with the best intentions, this isn’t an easy problem to solve.

A key problem that we heard repeated is that the police are relatively limited in what they can do. Even if a person is seen sleeping in the park at night, which isn’t allowed, they cannot force anyone into shelters. The most they can do is move them along with the hope that if the population keeps moving, they’ll eventually want to settle into shelters.

The police did, however, make several requests of residents:

  • If you see something, say something — People are the eyes and ears for the police, they need to know about problems. Call the police.
  • Be careful what you clean — There have been needles found around and the police were quick to caution anyone picking up trash to be very aware of what they are doing.
  • Know where you are — The path wanders through several cities and it’s best to know where you are, so in a situation that you do need to call for help you can direct police to your location.
  • Use the path — This one is very important. People should continue using the path. Not only is it safe, but it’s even safer when people are out on it and aware of their surroundings.

The police did, however, say they were going to change one thing with how they work together: better communication. They promised to keep each other informed of homeless who may be moving from city to city, not as a way to harass them, but to help them find those who can help.

“Our goal is not to arrest people, it’s to help people,” Apotheker said.

The evening ended on an up note, as the room sang “Happy Birthday” to Lt. Apotheker, and then everyone enjoyed a piece of sheet cake from Antoine’s.


*Please excuse the lack of photos, I’m having computer issues.

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