Wareham police officers on bicycles ride along Onset Avenue in Onset Village.Mike Valeri
By Jennifer Lade
Standard-Times staff writer
WAREHAM - It's around 8:30 p.m. and dozens of kids in their early teens are flocking to Onset village. Some groups hang out in the gazebo across the street from the outdoor movie playing at the band shell. Others congregate in front of Marc Anthony's pizzeria.
"You have a lot of kids that are dropped off by parents and left to roam about," said Sgt. John Walcek, surveying the crowd from the corner of Onset Avenue and South Boulevard.
He had to interrupt a conversation several times to tell kids to stop hanging on a street sign or to get out of the road as cars in both directions came to a stop.
"We're almost playing the role of a parent down here."
Welcome to another Thursday night in Onset, when a crowd gathers to watch free outdoor movies and others just socialize on the bluffs, sidewalks and streets.
Many people agree the situation in the village is less threatening than a year ago, when nuisance crimes were rampant and drugs were a bigger problem. A larger police presence and help from Crime Watch have largely contributed to the turnaround.
But police face an external investigation on a complaint that an officer used excessive force during the arrest of a teen. While many praise the department for its crackdown on crime, it is clear that the relationship between the different groups in Onset remains uneasy.
That relationship snapped on the night of July 10, when a 12-year-old was arrested after allegedly yelling obscenities at police, according to reports. His 14-year-old brother and 15-year-old sister were also arrested after they tried to interfere. At least one eyewitness said an officer used excessive force when arresting the girl, and two residents filed a complaint.
An internal investigation into the incident came back with no specific finding. While police received differing accounts from eyewitnesses, the mother of the 15-year-old refused to allow her to be interviewed by investigators, Police Chief Thomas Joyce said. After Kenny Fontes, one of the people who filed the complaint, approached selectmen, the board voted to refer the matter to an outside agency.
Acting Town Administrator John Sanguinet said Friday that he had contacted the Plymouth County District Attorney's office and was waiting for a response on how to proceed with an investigation.
"Nature of this job"
As the 4 p.m. to midnight shift supervisor, Sgt. Walcek is taking the situation in stride.
"I think it comes with the territory," he said. "People's perception of what happened is just that, a perception ... It's the nature of this job that not everybody's going to be happy with what they see."
Still, he said, the officers in Onset truly care about the people they are serving.
"They go out and give 110 percent. They really do," he said.
Last year, police took flak for not doing enough to keep Onset safe and orderly. Shop owners said crowds of unruly teens were hurting business, while selectmen said the police budget was not well-managed, preventing more officers from having beats in Onset.
This year, business owners seem happier. Marc Anthony's pizzeria was still bustling at 9 p.m. on Thursday, and co-owner John Salerno said the groups of teens neither hurt nor help his business.
"If we get the police around, it's not a problem," he said. "Kids are kids, they just need to be supervised ... Last year, we just needed help."
Plymouth resident Chickie Celli said she regularly takes her family to the Onset Bay Movie Co. free showings at the band shell. In the past, she said, she noticed "a rougher crowd," but this year, things seem better.
"I've always thought it was nice, family-friendly," she said.
Selectmen Chairman Jim Potter, who has worked with the Onset Bay Movie Co. since its inception 11 years ago, is quick to point out that the band shell is not where there is a problem. The rowdiness occurs across the street or up the road, out of sight from the band shell.
Mr. Potter said the outdoor movie showings give teens a free nighttime activity to attend, as long as they can behave.
"Here's something that doesn't even cost them money," and yet many teens choose not to participate, he said.
The problem was at its worst last year, he said.
"The situation has probably improved, but I'm not sure it's really fixed," Mr. Potter said. "The generation has just lost the respect for the authority."
Police public information officer Lt. Irving Wallace said the Police Department is always getting mixed signals about how to handle the Onset crowds.
"We have had residents come forward and actually express their satisfaction with the way things are down there," Lt. Wallace said. But, he added, "the other segment that wants to hang around the street corners isn't going to be happy if you're regularly moving them.
"It is mixed, it's always going to be mixed," he said. "You do the best job that you can."
"It's just an excuse"
As Thursday night wore on, more groups of teens could be observed around the village, playing hacky sack in the area behind the band shell or milling around the streets and sidewalks.
One group of teens admitted that they use the Thursday night movie as a cover to hang out in Onset.
"It's just an excuse to tell our parents," said Robert Flaherty, 16. But, he added, his friends aren't causing any trouble as they wander around the village.
"No one bothers us or anything," he said. "We're the ones that follow the trouble and watch."
Another group standing on the sidewalk on Onset Avenue said they are just having fun.
"We hang out, just chill with a couple friends," said Dominick Alves, 13. "We're in Onset every day."
His friend, Danny Devarros, 17, said they are always told to keep moving.
"Police always give us a hard time," he said. When asked why, Dominick chimed in again.
"I think it's because we're black," he said.
Danny agreed. He said one night his friends were forced to move while on another corner, white people were loitering without anyone bothering them.
"We had to move or else we were threatened to get arrested," he said.
A second later, Sgt. Walcek called to them to stop blocking the sidewalk. The teens moved on.
Onset resident Shelley Lueck said discrimination plays a role in which kids get in trouble.
"There are a few cops on the force that are very prejudiced, and I've seen it," she said, but did not give details.
She said she has never had a problem with the kids in Onset, but her neighbor, Heather Kelley, said her house was egged twice this summer.
"That's on the parents," Ms. Lueck said, adding that kids need a curfew. Her older children, ranging in age from 10 to 17, are allowed to hang out with friends across the street while she watches the outdoor movie with the younger ones, but their curfew is 9:30 p.m.
"My 10-year-olds are not running the streets at 12:00 at night," she said.
Shanel Bullock, 13, and 14-year-old Tamyra Alves (no relation to Dominick) were riding their bikes in the village around 8:30 p.m., but said they had to be home in an hour. Both said they understood their parents' concern.
"You get in trouble a lot" if you hang out in Onset, Tamyra said.