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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Random Observations:
Housing, Cops, Sex Offenders

Dennis Fox

August 19 , 2004

The TAB's summertime reduction in regularly scheduled columns means this week I'm cramming in three abbreviated comments. More another time....

1. Last week's TAB described Brookline's weakening rental market. Meanwhile, my neighbors are having trouble finding a buyer for their condo even after lowering the asking price. These changes from a year or two ago trouble landlords and sellers, but it's hard to stifle my satisfaction that some sense of proportion is returning to Brookline's housing market.

When we moved to Brookline Village six years ago, the hard-to-justify apartment rent soured our settling in. The next year we bought our condo, handing the previous owner a huge unearned windfall. Since then our unit's value has increased another 75%, well beyond the little we've paid to fix it up. Lucky us.

We'd be financially better off if prices kept escalating, but I'd rather see Brookline become more affordable. I'd rather see pushed-out moderate- and low-income families return. And I'd rather the town did more about this problem than tinker with limited programs or let the market do its thing.

2. It's good to hear our Police Department sent three officers to a county-wide seminar on how to prevent so many crime victims and witnesses from making faulty identifications of suspected perpetrators. The frequent inaccuracy of traditional lineups and other identification procedures has been known for decades -- it was already a basic topic in psychology-and-law courses before I began teaching the subject in the mid-1980s. Admissions that police and prosecutors routinely rely on bad evidence should have come long before DNA testing finally exonerated so many jailed felons. But better late than never.

As part of their promise to improve, police departments should end other traditional practices that create inaccuracy or unfairness. These range from acting on assumptions that blacks or Latinos or immigrants walking down the street are more guilty -- of something -- than whites, to charging arrestees with more crimes than justified, to hindering defense attorneys who are just trying to do their job (something I know about not just from published research but also from my defense-lawyer wife).

The same kind of research that identified flaws in traditional lineup procedures clarifies that some cops routinely hassle the innocent, lie in court, and enforce their own brand of justice -- and that police departments too often overlook such practices. Creating a Brookline Police Civilian Review Board would help make sure our own department does better than most.

3. The Massachusetts state website that now provides names and photos of people classified by punitive state bureaucrats as Level 3 sex offenders does not persuade me my family is safer.

The site lists one such person who works in Brookline, a 41-year old Dorchester resident who was convicted in 1986 of assault with intent to rape. That's a serious crime, but what am I supposed to do now -- print out his picture for my daughter so she can avoid him next time she's in Coolidge Corner? Has the guy been violent since his conviction 18 years ago, at age 23, or does his working status signify maturity and rehabilitation? Will the harassment he's likely to encounter from any busybody with an Internet connection help him readjust to society, or will it more likely complicate his efforts to hold his post-prison life together?

It's worth noting that ex-convicts who refuse to admit their guilt or participate in mandatory therapy are categorized as Level 3 even when they're unlikely to reoffend. That means those whose convictions stemmed from inaccurate identification -- who quite reasonably won't falsely admit guilt -- are penalized forever.

To see the state's sex offender information, by the way, I had to lie. So does every journalist or vigilante or curious citizen who clicks "I agree" to this statement: "you acknowledge that you are requesting this information for your own protection or for the protection of a child or another person for whom you have responsibility, care, custody, and that you believe you are likely to encounter an offender who may be posted on this website. " How can we suspect we'll "likely" encounter someone whose existence we're not even aware of?

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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