A Boston police officer has been placed on administrative leave after students from a Hyde Park charter school said he pushed them and used racist slurs last week while responding to a noise complaint at a fast-food restaurant.
In a rare move, Police Commissioner William Gross and Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins visited Roxbury Prep High School on Hyde Park Avenue together Thursday to hear from students and try to foster trust in police officers.
“They’re walking away from this encounter on Friday feeling attacked and racialized and dehumanized,” Rollins said as she left the school. “We have to wait and see what the investigation shows, but the allegations are hate-filled and fuel distrust of law enforcement.”
The students involved in the incident, who are in the ninth and 10th grades, were at a McDonald’s down the street from the school before classes began Friday, parents said. They were disruptive and a manager asked them to get out. When the students did not immediately leave, someone at the restaurant called police.
“The police officer was asking them to leave, but then he changed his attitude and started pushing the kids and using bad language toward them,” said Rafaela Martinez, whose son was one of the students.
The students say the officer followed them up the street to the school, used the n-word, and called them “monkeys.”
Mayor Martin J. Walsh called the students’ allegations “incredibly disturbing.”
“No one should experience racism or discrimination, not in a place of learning and not anywhere,” Walsh said in a statement.
“We have to be better. I commend Boston police for taking action as soon as they were made aware of the allegations, and I am confident they will investigate this case to its full extent.”
Martinez said she has been telling her son, who is 15, to obey police officers if they give him orders.
“They’re still kids. For me as a mom, I’m seeing both sides. The kids were really loud, up in his face trying to record him,” Martinez said. “The police officer is still a human being. Sometimes we just have a bad day.”
Police identified the officer as Joseph Lynch, a 16-year veteran of the department who was assigned to District E-18 in Hyde Park. He will be on administrative leave as the department’s internal affairs section investigates, said Sergeant John Boyle, a department spokesman.
Gross was careful to say that he did not want to affect his department’s internal affairs investigation, but that he wanted to apologize to the students Thursday.
“My apology was that they had a negative interaction, and that could have caused them to not trust the police,” he said. He also wanted them to know that he and Rollins “will listen to their voices, and just as importantly, [want] to thank them for using their voices.”
Rollins said she wanted to make sure that the students “know we’re listening, and if what they allege happened, the Boston Police Department is far better than that.”
Roxbury Prep has three middle school and two high school locations in Boston. The Hyde Park building has students in the ninth and 10th grades, most of whom are black and Latino.
Barbara Martinez, a spokeswoman for Roxbury Prep, said the school appreciated Rollins and Gross coming to listen to the students.
“Numerous students and staff have come forward to express deep concerns about the officer’s behavior, both in terms of his actions and language,” Martinez said. “The entire Roxbury Prep community — students, families, administrators, faculty, and staff — are shocked and deeply upset by what occurred.”
Negative interactions with law enforcement can be especially harmful when they come at a young age, said Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights.
“It’s particularly damaging when the conduct is directed at children and young adults,” Sellstrom said. “Do you look to officers to protect you, or do you see them as a hostile or racist element of your community?”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.