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Playground Bullies
Special police at Dorchester's Boston Bowl detained and intimidated an artist - even threatened his life. Who's accountable?


“GET YOUR FUCKING hands up, you fucking pervert! Shut the FUCK up! If I have to take you to the station, it won't be pleasant!”

Paul Yates couldn't see the officer who screamed these words. He was facing his car, his arms stretched before him. The officer stood behind Yates - so close that Yates could feel the guy's breath on his neck. The officer's voice rang in his ears. " You fucking pervert, " he shouted. " There are kids here. "

A second officer charged toward Yates with such speed that Yates flinched - expecting to feel the heavy blow of the man's fist in his face. The officer's blazing eyes met Yates's. " There are so many fucking kids in there, " the officer yelled. He spit out his words - drool landed on Yates's shirt. " I've got kids too. You know, I'm going to fucking kill you. "

So what had Yates done to provoke this behavior? Flashed a child? Lurked suspiciously around a school playground? Nope. Yates, an artist who has just completed his first feature-length film and has exhibited his photographs at galleries in New England, had stripped off his clothes in a photo booth at Dorchester's Boston Bowl, a bowling alley open 24 hours a day on Morrissey Boulevard, to take pictures of himself. He was blocked from public view by a curtain, as well as two friends who stood guard outside and had moved a trash can in front of the booth to obstruct the view of Yates's feet. The officers did not catch Yates in the flesh. They found one of the photographs after the fact. For this, they detained and threatened him for approximately 45 minutes. Twenty of those minutes were spent outside on a bitterly cold February night at around 10 p.m. - a time when most kids are at home.

Eventually, after telling him he was under arrest - twice - the officers let Yates go without explanation. Not that Yates needs one. He knows these officers detained him for the sole purpose of scaring him - and it worked.

THROUGHOUT THE ordeal, Yates believed he was being terrorized by Boston Police officers. He learned otherwise the following day, when he contacted Boston Bowl to ask for the officers' names. He wanted to file a complaint. He asked to speak to the manager and was referred to Paul Fabienski. Yates says he left a voice-mail message with Fabienski. Later that day, Yates left another message. In fact, he says he left at least six of them. It wasn't until Yates enlisted the help of a lawyer friend who had worked on his film projects that he was able to reach Fabienski, who directed all questions to the parent company of the bowling alley, Bay Colony Associates. (Fabienski declined to comment for this article.) The lawyer then contacted Philip Strazzula, who is one of the three owners of the entertainment complex that includes Boston Bowl, two hotels, and three restaurants. Bay Colony Associates also operates the security division licensed to employ special officers to patrol these establishments.

When the Phoenix contacted Strazzula, he confirmed that the incident had occurred. Yet he disputed Yates's charge of harassment, describing the special officers as " experienced men " who are " not your rent-a-cop type " and who would " never " treat someone in the manner alleged by Yates. Still, Strazzula declined to allow the Phoenix to interview the officers, or to see a report of the incident that he says they filed with the security department. He also refused to reveal the officers' identities. Strazzula insists that he'd be " more than happy " to listen to Yates, but that Yates has never contacted him directly. Even though he says he's never spoken with Yates, he implies that the artist deserved what he got. " It seems to me like he did something wrong here, " the owner claims. " I don't get what his beef is.... If these officers really wanted to be tough on him, they could have arrested him. "

In short, Strazzula concludes, " I'd consider myself lucky to get off. "

All of which raises the question: where is the accountability? The so-called special officer is part of a shadow force that's governed by Rule 400 of the Boston Police Department policy handbook. Special officers are licensed by the city and state police, yet hired and fired by private security companies. They wear badges and distinctive uniforms; some of them carry guns. Their patrols are confined to private property - banks, stores, and hotels - within certain areas. They can arrest people, but cannot transport them. In essence, special officers are glorified security guards - they rank right above the mall cop on the totem pole of law enforcement.

They are not the only special officers in town, either. The city itself employs a corps of special officers, called the Boston Municipal Police, to whom it grants police powers - and who have come under fire recently because of the high-profile shooting death of Ricky Bodden last December. Bodden was gunned down in a Dorchester park by Officer Kyle Wilcox, who says he fired after Bodden pulled out a gun. Activists, though, question the shooting's legitimacy based on the fatal wound's location - the back of Bodden's neck. Last week, protesters delivered a letter to Suffolk County district attorney Ralph Martin demanding an inquest.

The Bodden controversy shows that accountability for special officers may not come easily - but at least the Municipal Police are city employees. The Yates situation, on the other hand, lays bare what can happen when special officers have no apparent public oversight.

This time, they picked on an artist. Next time, it could be you.

IT WAS Yates's art that brought him to Boston Bowl last February. The 33-year-old from Stamford, Connecticut, has a habit of hunting down photo booths in every city he visits - be it at a mall in Chicago, a novelty shop in Manhattan, or a train station in Florence, Italy. He spends as much as $25 on photo booths per week, taking anywhere from eight to 20 pictures. All told, he estimates that he has about 5000 such photographs - a number of which have been shown at the Stamford Museum and New York University's Tisch Photo Gallery. His work is anything but conventional. In each shot, he aims, he says, to " push the boundaries of the medium " beyond the typical kid-with-goofy-face image. He has done everything imaginable in a photo booth: built dioramas, dressed in costume, made still-life portraits. He's even staged elaborate tales: Flash. Yates is stuck on a roller coaster. Flash. Yates climbs a rope. Flash. Yates's head explodes, then oozes beans, ketchup, mayonnaise, and shaving cream.

Many such images have been created here in Boston - at the Dorchester-based Boston Bowl. The bowling alley's photo booth made Yates's A-list almost as soon as he discovered it three years ago. For starters, the Boston Bowl booth represents one of just two machines in the city that develop color pictures. (The Boston Children's Museum owns the other.) Secondly, it offers a strip of four photos for relatively cheap - $3 per strip, compared to $5 per picture at the CambridgeSide Galleria, in Cambridge. Best of all, Boston Bowl stays open 24 hours a day. And so, explains Yates, " I can make art when the inspiration hits me - even at two in the morning. "

On February 21, inspiration happened to strike at a more reasonable hour. Earlier that blustery day, Yates had arranged to drop off copies of his feature film, Porno, a PG-13 comedy about Christmas Eve in a porn shop, with Boston producers. (Yates recently finished his movie after two years' worth of filming in the city, at an adult-entertainment store on Boylston Street; he also directed a short independent film called Space Water Onion.) Before leaving Stamford, he dialed up two fellow photo-booth aficionados, Krissy Mendonco and Elisha Foley. He had just purchased a clear plastic fishbowl-like mirror, the kind that truckers fasten on rear windows to widen their sight lines. Yates suggested they all meet at their favorite photo booth at 8:30 p.m. to experiment.

As they tried out the mirror, the three grew more and more excited. " This changed our whole concept of space, " recalls Mendonco, a 21-year-old student at Massachusetts College of Art. For the first time, these photographers could see almost their entire bodies within the picture's frame, rather than just their heads. For them, she adds, " this was a real breakthrough. "

Yates puts it more bluntly, " We'd crossed the limited boundaries of the photo-booth machine.... We were like painters who find a new color. "

Yet it wasn't long before Yates would inadvertently cross another boundary. Thirty minutes and 20 pictures later, he was standing in the photo booth when he got the idea to make what he calls a " more organic " shot of himself. He stripped off his shirt and shoes. He took his picture in jeans. Then he thought he'd make the perfect self-portrait: he'd go nude. He shared his idea with Mendonco and Foley.

" I told him, 'Go for it,' " recalls Foley, 21, who plays bass guitar for the fledgling rock band Janke.

But first, Yates took precautions. He asked his friends to pull over an industrial garbage can and place it in front of the booth's curtain, which shrouds an adult only above the knees. They then held the curtain shut. " I didn't want to be seen, " Yates says. " I couldn't see out of the booth. Nobody could see in. "

What happened next lasted a matter of seconds. Yates grabbed a translucent bag from the trash can. He put the bag over his body, then dropped his pants to his knees. He feigned a dead expression. The image resembled that of a corpse in a body bag. Yates then decided to pose naked again - this time in a fetal position, much like the famous picture of a nude John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono.

While Yates was in the booth, Mendonco noticed Boston Bowl staff members pointing at her and Foley. " I said, 'Oh no,' " Mendonco recounts, " 'we've attracted attention.' " Soon, Yates, still behind the curtain, heard a gruff voice: You'd better not be taking naked pictures in there. His friends replied, " We're not, officer. " The flash popped. Yates had taken three strips of naked photos. He quickly slipped on his clothes, and then hurried out of the booth - only to find two officers backing Mendonco and Foley up against the wall.

To Yates and his friends, these men looked like any other police officers: they wore dark shirts, as well as dark pants with a red stripe along the side. They had badges and radios. The first officer was short and stocky. He had a near-shaved head and a brown goatee. The second was taller and lankier, and had sand-colored hair styled in a mullet.

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