THE Salvation Army volunteers tinkling their bells on Boston sidewalks had some unusual company this holiday season. At some of the city's busiest corners, off-duty police officers - distinguishable by the logo on their baseball caps - for a few days handed shoppers and tourists a slim pamphlet emblazoned with a Grim Reaper and the words ``Fear City, U.S.A.''
Alluding to a recent murder and several beatings in Boston's downtown shopping area, the leaflet's ``safety tips'' advised that after 6 p.m., people should avoid the ``high risk'' subway system, shouldn't walk near Boston Garden (the arena where the basketball Celtics and hockey Bruins play), and should stay away from ``known trouble spots'' like Faneuil Hall, Copley Place, and the Prudential Center - sites of some of the city's most popular shops and restaurants.
Merchants and civic groups decried the cops' so-called public-service campaign, which a Boston Globe editorial called ``ludicrous.'' Despite denials by Richard Bradley, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, it's widely assumed that the leafleting was a bargaining ploy in the officers' contract negotiations with City Hall.
A rash of news stories trumpeted statistics showing that Boston is safer than many large cities. The Globe boosterishly called downtown Boston ``among the safest, most vibrant places in urban America.''
If the police seemed a bit ham-handed, their action sprang from understandable frustration. For more than three years, the 1,500 men and women in blue have been doing stressful and often dangerous jobs without a contract, pay and benefits frozen at the levels of a pact that expired in 1990.
Boston faces the same tight budget constraints known to other large United States cities. Police officers here, like teachers and other municipal workers, are seeking wage hikes at a time when there is great competition for the shrinking tax dollar.
Still, the city's political leadership has uncommon difficulty coming to closure with the public-sector unions. Police detectives, supervisors, and firefighters also are without contracts.
The labor disputes are taking place in a cauldron of historical and political factors. ``There's been a long history of bitterness between the city and labor,'' says George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Northeastern University here, who traces the legacy of ``acrimony'' and distrust back to a tumultuous police strike in 1919.
At times the police officers have seemed to stick their thumbs in the eyes of Boston's establishment - as in the ``Fear City'' campaign and the union's noisy endorsement of George Bush over Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election.
For their part, Professor Kelling says, many cops on the street over the years have felt aggrieved by a highly politicized department, in which promotions and perks often were distributed to curry favor with City Hall.
Police Commissioner William Bratton has taken strides to depoliticize the department, some observers say. Mr. Bratton is departing to head up the New York City police force, but it's hoped that his plans will be continued by his replacement (for whom a search is under way). Boston's new mayor, Thomas Menino, seems more comfortable than some of his predecessors with a strong-minded and independent top cop.
A group of business, university, and civic leaders has just formed a foundation to raise money for special support projects requested by the police department. That's well and good, but some observers suggest a bigger service would be for such leaders to be honest brokers helping to improve relations between the city and its employee unions.