Activists Train Cautious Eye On Boston’s Police Reform Task Force

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Saraya Wintersmith

Latoya Gayle, a community organizer, was skeptical when Mayor Marty Walsh unveiled a nine-member task force charged with examining Boston Police Department operations last month.

The announcement followed nation-wide protests against racism and police brutality, including two weeks of nightly demonstrations in Boston.

In addition to revealing the task force, on June 12, Walsh also declared racism a public health crisis, called for diverting $12 million from the police overtime budget, and announced that the city would finally scrap the use of a biased police entry test. To Gayle, the steps — particularly the task force — seemed top-down and reactive.

“I thought it was very convenient for him to say, ‘Oh yeah, racism is a public health crisis now, and here’s what I’m going to do,’ because it’s the ‘in’ thing to do right now,” said Gayle, a Dorchester resident, with a chuckle. “It would’ve seemed more genuine if he thought this was an issue and he reached out to the people who have been saying it was an issue for years.”

At first, Gayle, 41, and other activists felt Walsh failed to include voices from the community in the panel’s membership. But a few weeks later, Walsh quietly expanded the panel in response to a request from City Council President Kim Janey.

First comprised mostly of Black establishment figures, the task force was expanded to include a local activist, a Latino lawyer, and a leader of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO).

This Tuesday, Walsh announced the task force will host public discussions along with their ongoing closed meetings, “where residents will have the opportunity to share” experiences and suggestions, Walsh said.

The task force is set to hold four rounds of listening sessions over the next two weeks. According to Walsh’s office, it will submit initial recommendations for community review by Aug. 14. Final recommendations are scheduled to reach Walsh by Sept. 14.

Gayle said after the notice of public discussions, she’s become cautiously optimistic about the task force’s capacity to recommend the kinds of changes she believes will help her community.

“Accountability. There needs to be clear accountability when the police wrong the community,” she said. “Unless and until that happens, there will be no trust between the police and the community.”

Janey, who had urged the mayor to expand the task force, echoed Gayle’s cautious optimism. She said she supports the formation of an independent civilian oversight board with the authority to summon officers for explanation of their actions in cases the board reviews.

“We have to see what comes of this,” Janey said in an interview with WGBH News. “We have to continue to make sure that the desired outcome, which is a strong civilian review board with subpoena power, is in fact the end result.”

The task force’s four-part charge is to: review Boston Police’s use-of-force policies; recommend rigorous implicit bias training; improve the body camera program; and strengthen Boston’s existing Community Ombudsmen Oversight Panel, which reviews complaints against the BPD’s internal investigation team.

Most of the group’s members either did not respond to or declined WGBH News requests to be interviewed for this story, but at least two have publicly called for a strong civilian review board in the past.

One of them is Boston-based activist Jamarhl Crawford, who said he plans to raise the issue as the task force continues its closed meetings.

“I cannot speak for the task force,” Crawford said. “All I can tell you is I’m going to be advocating on the inside of the task force for the same things that I’ve been advocating for on the outside of the task force.”

Crawford said he hopes the panel’s recommendations are given sincere consideration and are not misinterpreted once they are released.

“The general public could take it a way. Proponents of the police and those who are averse to change could take it away,” he said. “But whatever happens, I just want people to understand that whatever the findings, there was serious thought and time put into that by the panel assembled.”

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston chapter, is another panel member who has called for a civilian review board in the past.

For other activists, like local Black Lives Matter leader Monica Cannon-Grant, there’s still doubt about what the panel will produce, given its makeup.

“For me, that task force is drenched in respectability politics, plain and simple,” Cannon-Grant said in an interview with WGBH News before the membership changes were announced. Asked what she meant by “respectability politics,” Cannon-Grant said: “Black folks who make white people comfortable.”

Before Walsh announced the changes, Cannon-Grant was one of the voices stressing a need for community input.

“You can’t advocate for someone without talking to them,” she said. “They have a responsibility to speak with community members.”

MAMLEO President Eddy Chrispin, who sits on the now 11-member task force, said he’s eager to express an officer of color’s view.

“That’s a perspective that no one else on that board has,” Chrispin told WGBH News. “We know what it’s like to police and we also know what it’s like to be a Black man.”

Asked about the panel’s charge to look at ways to strengthen the city’s existing CO-OP board, Chrispin said police agencies “are going to have to deal with the idea of somebody else looking over their shoulder,” and he is supportive of careful reforms.

“I think as long as the CO-OP board is able to objectively look at officers’ actions with an understanding of what officers do and how it plays out in real life … I don’t mind it,” he said. “If it lends greater credibility to our job and how we do it, so be it.”

Gayle said she supports adding a civilian review board as a way to begin building community confidence.

“I think a civilian oversight board, if comprised properly, will bring some accountability, because police would know they’re not answering to themselves,” she said.

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