FRAMINGHAM – Claudia Chaves is a certified fitness trainer at CoreFit on Hollis Street in downtown Framingham.
Unfortunately, she, or her customers, have found walking in or out of the 50 Hollis business drunk individuals, men urinating, and once two people engaging in sex in the doorway.
Chaves is not the only business owner with complaints of activity that scare away customers and patrons from downtown Framingham businesses.
Robert Forbes is a landlord on Hollis Street. He told the Framingham Police Chief and Mayor Yvonne Spicer at an August 2018 meeting at City Hall, his tenants feel “unsafe.”
“A couple of my tenants have to keep doors locked because of the problem,” Forbes said. “They’re intimidated with the illegal activity going on, with the panhandling and the aggressiveness. We need to find a solution for where these people can be provided an outlet that is not suffering downtown.”
In October 2018, Framingham Police Chief Steven Trask and Mayor Spicer held another meeting about downtown issues at the main Framingham Library.
One mother complained about drug addicts and drunks at her child’s bus stop. Business owners again complained about lewd and annoying behavior by individuals in front of their stores and restaurants.
A year later, and the criminal activity continues.
Downtown Framingham Inc. did a survey and found 87 percent of small businesses in the Central Business District located south of Route 135 stated their own clients were often too afraid to come to their stores.
On Memorial Day weekend, someone defecated in front of Brian Li’s downtown Framingham building.
And just before Independence Day, a man was stabbed multiple times in front of Panteneria and Pit Bull on Hollis Street.
A day later, Framingham Police arrested four individuals before 11 a.m. in a public drinking sting.
They were all arraigned in Framingham District Court. The judge dismissed their cases and ordered each to pay $25 for court fees.
Fed up with nuisance and criminal activity happening downtown, businesses, with the help of the organization Downtown Framingham Inc., launched a crowdsourcing campaign to raise funds to hire a private security detail in the neighborhood.
It is a first of its kind effort in the City of Framingham, to hire private security to police and monitor public areas and businesses.
Gated communities have long hired private security, but in the past decade, hiring private security personnel has expanded to public neighborhoods in many metropolitan centers including Chicago, Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Seattle.
After Li told Downtown Framingham Inc. (DFI) Executive Director Courtney Thraen about what happened over Memorial Day weekend, she launched a GoFundMe to hire a private security firm for the summer in downtown Framingham.
As of today, July 9, more than $5,000 has been raised.
That is enough to cover two weeks of service with New England Security Protective Services Agency, said the director.
So starting Monday, July 15, the agency will provide services to 40 downtown Framingham business owners in Burkis Square, many of whom are women of color, said Thraen.
“In the fall of 2018 I discovered the Block by Block program, and I immediately felt this model would be perfect for downtown Framingham. I wanted a version of this model in place by the summer of 2019 at a scalable, tailored level,” explained Thraen.
“First, DFI worked on three separate grant requests over a 7-month span to hire medically-trained social workers to conduct full-time outreach in Burkis Square,” she said.
This initiative earned the backing of Senate President Karen Spilka, State Rep. Jack Lewis, and Mayor Spicer, said Thraen.
“Because these three grant requests weren’t successful, DFI next turned to creating a program to support the businesses, which falls directly under DFI’s mission,” explained the Naval Veteran, who has been the executive director for about 3 years.
“My goal is to have a program in effect for this summer, so fast action was required to raise the requisite funds starting in late May. The business support detail serves an important lookout role that relieves businesses of this constant burden that’s increasingly critical as the temperatures climb,” she said.
In 2018, there were 146 ambulance calls placed to the Hollis/Irving Streets intersection.
In 2018, there were 189 police calls placed to the Hollis / Irving Streets intersection.
Last summer, business owners raised concerns with the Mayor and the Police Department about individuals hanging around the newly-installed benches on Irving and Hollis streets.
“I go out and chase them away,” said Auto Brite Car Wash owner Boris Kanieff. “If there was a bench in front of Auto Brite, we would have jackhammered it away.”
But almost a year later, and the problems still exist at that intersection and near Auto Brite.
On June 30, a man reported another man held a machete to his throat in front of the car wash on Hollis Street.
“As witnessed in 2018, the very heavy volume of phone calls placed to the City to serve the intersection of Hollis and Irving streets really requires liaison support that small and mainly immigrant-run businesses should not be obliged to complete full-time,” said Thraen. “These activities seriously reduce the productivity of small businesses in Burkis Square, too. Through a detail, DFI can track all calls and responses, sharing aggregate data critical to all downtown stakeholders.”
Additionally, said Thraen “to combat the commonly expressed wariness toward this area, it’s necessary to have a business supported detail to greet customers, hand out shopping maps, share parking guidance, and walk customers to their vehicles, among other end-user activities. It’s a big dream of mine to have outreach workers in place this summer, and I am very happy to see it come to fruition.”
But this effort to make business owners and patrons feel safer will require much more than private security.
Thraen has been reaching out and meeting with city leaders, including the Mayor and the Police, as well as local advocacy organizations for almost 3 summers now, with little change in the problem.
Some say the problems have only escalated.
Some of those causing the issues downtown have mental health problems, which require more than just policing.
Frustrated, Thraen went with a private security agency, but she knows it won’t fix all the problems.
And hiring private security has its own issues, too.
The use of private police – individuals who are accountable to those who pay them – can create legal and municipality issues.
Can private security intervene when they see a crime? Should they arrest someone or have the legal authority to detain someone until Framingham Police arrive?
A 2015 Harvard University Kennedy School report identified civil liberty issues, a lack of state law governing private police, possible inadequate training of private security personnel, as issues to be aware of when private security is hired to man public neighborhoods, instead of municipal police officers.
SOURCE asked the Framingham Police Chief/Deputy Chief for a statement last Wednesday and have yet to receive a statement.
“First let me say, the Burkis Square situation is a difficult and thorny issue. But this issue impacting Burkis Square should not be a surprise to the administration, because it has been brewing since at least last year and in other areas of downtown for a lot longer,” said City Council Chair Dennis Giombetti.
SOURCE asked the Mayor’s office for a statement on what specifically has been done by the city and her administration since that August meeting with business owners.
The Mayor’s spokesperson, Chief Information Officer Kelly McFalls, said “The Mayor’s office has been engaged on these issues through the police, health department and fire department. The office attended a SMOC/Framingham Police meeting where they coordinated their case management activities with a number of the downtown homeless/social services clients. The Mayor’s office is working to engage more with SMOC at higher levels of the organization to address some of these issues.”
“I think the administration has not handled it very well, which has led to the impacted businesses hiring a private security firm to address this situation that is primarily on public property,” said Giombetti, who represents District 5. “In my opinion, not a good solution, but I understand the utter frustration of these local businesses. Without a city plan from the Mayor, I certainly can understand their desire to act to protect their businesses and their customers. “
“There seems to be a lack of urgency from the administration with little outreach to the impacted businesses (at least to recognize their plight) and an over reliance on old ideas (looking toward SMOC to solve it) that have had limited sustainable success. The Mayor has been far too silent and urgently needs to articulate a plan of action to help address the problems,” said City Council Chair Giombetti.
“Framingham Police Officers share the frustration of the Burkis Square business owners,” said Ryan Porter, a Framingham Police Officer and President of the Framingham Police Officers Union.
“We commend their commitment to fix a serious problem that affects their livelihood and the community as a whole,” said Officer Porter.
“It is unfortunate and unfair that these business owners need to pay out of their own pockets for an essential City service – public safety,” said Officer Porter, on behalf of the union.
“It has become clear that six to eight officers per shift cannot sufficiently patrol a City of more than 70,000 people, and that two officers walking downtown only between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. is not the “downtown foot beat” our residents seek. The businesses of Burkis Square want better and are willing to come up with creative solutions, but that shouldn’t be their burden to bear,” said the Police Officers union president.
“I appreciate the work that is going into the problem, but I feel we need a little more urgency if our businesses feel compelled to hire their own security,” said at-large City Council George King, who chairs the City Council’s finance subcommittee. “There are many positive initiatives being led by DFI and others, but if we are unable to overcome this challenge it is going to set those admirable efforts back.”
There have been some legal issues raised in court in regards to private security taking on the role of substitute police officer.
Most private security companies do not ask their personnel to carry weapons.
However, nation-wide many police departments encourage officers to carry weapons while they are off the clock, including when they work private details and private security gigs.
But the big question for some is why does one neighborhood of the city need to hire private security so its business owners and patrons feel safe? Shouldn’t this service be provided by the City of Framingham? Why should downtown be treated differently than Nobscot, Saxonville, or even Route 9, which gets police when it needs them.
“Rather than focusing on raising money for a private security detail, shouldn’t we be focusing on why the City is not keeping that area safe? The public should not be asked to raise funds to do what the city should be doing,” said attorney Suze Craighead, who lives in District 3 of the City.
“There are serious issues raised by empowering private security to patrol public places. Private security is not accountable to the public or the government we voted in. They also do not have to follow the rules and regulations required of real police, nor do they have to have the same level of training,” said Craighead.
“The real issue is whether there is a failure of local government to perform one of its primary functions: Keeping the citizens safe,” said Craighead.
Downtown Framingham is home to many minority-owned and women-owned businesses. Some say the lack of support makes it an environmental justice neighborhood.
But the City has been advocating for transit-oriented development downtown.
And, the new Alta Union House is now renting luxury apartments downtown, but the businesses owners and their customers near the new apartments are not feeling safe in the neighborhood.
“One year ago, I opened two businesses in storefronts that had been vacant for over one year,” said Vanderleia Sales, owner of Pitbull and Pantaneira Fashion on Route 126. He made major upgrades to the exterior and interior of the two businesses.
“I need your help to ensure this investment will last,” said Sales, about the crowdsourcing effort for business supported details. “Our clients deserve a beautiful, safe Burkis Square.”
Thraen herself donated more than $250 to the GoFundMe for the private detail.
Other businesses in downtown are supporting the Burkis Square campaign. Jack Abby’s Brewing donated $500 to the private detail fund.
And state Reps. Jack Patrick Lewis and Maria Robinson made private donations to the fund.
District 4 City Councilor Michael Cannon, District 8 City Councilor Judith Grove, and District 3 City Councilor Adam Steiner also personally donated to the fund.
Close to 50 people and business owners have donated to help pay for the private security firm, which starts on July 15.
Maybe with the new security business owners will feel safer and hopefully, their customers will feel safer.
But at the moment, it is an attempt to fix a problem, and not yet a solution to the problem.
“While I do not want to overstate the situation, the near to medium term future of Downtown Framingham could very well be dependent on how this issue is addressed and how quickly, especially given that leasing of the new apartments is underway, along with new potential business investment,” said City Council Chair Giombetti.