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Bicyclists find themselves in the middle of turf wars

Lauren Paap, a 31-year-old Jamaica Plain resident, might not seem like a radical bicycle crusader, ready to blaze new trails for the cause. As she rather humbly puts it, "I bike like Mary Poppins, not like an expert." But after narrowly escaping an attack along the Southwest Corridor Park bike path late last month — one of a rash of crimes recently reported in the area — Paap has charged to the head of the cycling-advocacy pack.

"I’m just not interested in giving up my bike path," Paap says, explaining why she’s galvanizing Boston-area cyclists to demand more patrols and increased funding for community policing along the path.

Paap has long been a fixture on the "Corridor," which runs from JP to the Back Bay. Every morning and night, she can be found perched atop her green off-road bike riding to and from her office at the Women’s Lunch Place, a homeless shelter on Newbury Street. She takes great pleasure in the park’s ambiance, not to mention the cyclists she encounters daily. And she takes great comfort in the fact that the Boston Police Department (BPD) headquarters looms over the path. Just the sight of the station, she says, "had always made me feel safe."

But all that changed on May 22, at around 9:30 p.m., as Paap cycled along the path behind the station. She noticed three youths, dressed in dark, hooded sweatshirts and jeans, walking toward her as she rode. Their shoulders were slumped, their hands jammed in their pockets. Paap didn’t want to jump to any conclusions, but she didn’t want to take any chances, either. So she sped up and rode past them. Confirming her worst fears, the youths chased after her. Panicked ("I thought they were going to beat me up and rob me"), she managed to stay out of range of her would-be attackers — "All I was thinking was ‘Speed, speed, speed,’" she recalls — until she spotted a ramp leading up to police headquarters. Within seconds, she ran into the station lobby, bike in tow, and shouted, "Quick! There are three guys out there that just tried to attack me!"

According to Paap, she was met with indifference. When the officer assigned to the front desk heard that the attempted assault had occurred on the bike corridor, she recounts, "He said to me, ‘The path is not our jurisdiction. It’s the state police’s.’" The cop, she says, refused even to look outside the door. Instead, he called the Massachusetts State Police so she could report the alleged crime.

Not surprisingly, Paap was appalled: "These guys who almost attacked me were 20 feet behind the station, and he’s telling me that it’s not his jurisdiction."

By the time the state troopers arrived, the youths had vanished. One trooper, Bob Ahern, jotted down Paap’s account of events. He then informed her that, 10 minutes earlier, another gang of kids had succeeded in jumping a male cyclist on the bike path and had stolen his bicycle. "He warned that violence on the path is on the rise," Paap says, because of a spike in gang activity in and around the corridor. (Trooper Ahern could not be reached for comment before the Phoenix’s deadline.)

The next day, Paap sent an e-mail to friends and fellow corridor cyclists, relaying her story and urging them to "stand up for community policing in the area." She told her tale again to the Boston Bicycle Advisory Committee (BBAC), of which she is a new member. There, she found out that a BBAC colleague, Tom Revay, had encountered similar tension along the corridor on May 22. Revay says he was riding near the path at around 8:45 p.m. when a group of youths howled at him and screamed, "Faggot bitch!" When he and committee members heard about Paap, they grew outraged. "It’s unconscionable for the Boston Police to refuse to patrol the Southwest Corridor when it’s visible through the huge glass windows at the back of their bran’ spankin’ new headquarters," Revay wrote in an e-mail message.

According to BPD spokesperson Mariellen Burns, the officer who turned Paap away was technically correct in stating that the department does not patrol the bike path. But, she acknowledges, "If someone comes in here looking for help, that is not how we’d prefer an officer to respond." Sergeant Ed Principe, of the Massachusetts State Police, confirmed that the state police are responsible for patrolling the bike path (though he couldn’t confirm Paap’s version of events before deadline). When asked if Boston police are allowed to help police the area, he replied, "You’d have to ask the Boston Police about that."

But if Paap has anything to say about it, the Boston Police won’t be turning its back on corridor cyclists in the future. Paap, Revay, and other BBAC members are reaching out to the department — which has an open seat on the BBAC — to push for a proactive response to cyclists’ safety. In recent weeks, Paap and Revay met with several park officials and state troopers who regularly patrol the corridor to air their concerns. The troopers told Paap and Revay that, since the early 1990s, the state and city have agreed to work together to police the area. In other words, what happened to Paap never should have occurred. Indeed, the Boston desk cop’s supervisor, Deputy Superintendent William Bradley, called Paap last week to apologize because he was "particularly concerned about this situation." Explains Bradley, "We are not in the business of turning people away. The Boston Police Department is not here to turn a crime over to another police agency without addressing the issue immediately." Bradley has made a point of correcting the officer’s "inaccuracies" over what officers can and cannot do along the Southwest Corridor. "We can enforce the law in that area and we should," he says. "The officer understands this. It should not happen again."

In the meantime, Paap — who says that Bradley’s phone call made her "feel assured that this was an isolated incident" — is sending a shout-out to the Boston cycling community: reclaim your bike paths. "Watching the corridor succumb to crime is not an acceptable alternative," she says.

Issue Date: June 20 - 27, 2002
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