Calls For Boston Police Reform Evoke Almost 30 Years Of Tension

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People carry placards, left, as they walk past Boston Police during a protest against police brutality on June 7, 2020, in Boston.
Steven Senne / AP

By Isaiah Thompson

In June, in the wake of local and national protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh held a press conference to declare racism a public health crisis. He also announced a series of initiatives aimed at ending systemic racism at every level of city government — including within the Boston Police Department.

“Equity has been the center of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and our goal has always been to recover from this pandemic in a more equitable state than we entered it,” Walsh said.

Walsh stressed reforms already implemented under his administration, including the adoption of body cameras, banning the use of choke holds, and new ethics policies that require officers to intervene if they witness a fellow officer using unnecessary force.

Meanwhile, Walsh said, the BPD is already revising policies to meet standards for use of force known as “Eight Can’t Wait,” promoted by the advocacy group Campaign Zero. And, Walsh noted, his revised city budget — now passed — included the reallocation of $12 million, or 20 percent, of the BPD overtime budget to be spent on various city programs to combat racial inequality.

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh discusses updates relating to COVID-19 on June 18, 2020.

But, Walsh said, he remains open to further changes.

And to that end, Walsh announced the appointment of a task force to review Boston Police Department policies and procedures. Led by by former U.S. Attorney Wayne Budd, who is African-American, the task force would return draft recommendations within 60 days, Walsh said.

“We’re not going to let this moment or this movement pass us by,” Walsh said.

What remains to be seen is whether those recommendations will result in the kind of changes being sought by some activists and community leaders determined to bring more accountability to the BPD.

A review by WGBH News finds that accountability measures suggested by a similarly-appointed body some three decades ago remain, in some cases, unimplemented today — especially around questions of whether and how the BPD should be entrusted to police itself and the process by which allegations of police misconduct are investigated.

Walsh’s appointment of the new Boston Police Task Force drew praise from some corners, but also immediate skepticism from community leaders and activists who had already been calling for drastic changes to policing in Boston, ranging from calls to slash the BPD’s budget to a renewed push to establish robust civilian oversight of the police department and allegations of police misconduct.

Some of those critics suggested that Walsh is using the new task force, announced just days after activists flooded a City Council hearing to demand cuts to the BPD, to punt on sensitive reforms.

And it is not the first time Boston has been here.

In 1991, then-Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn also appointed a commission to review the BPD after a series ofracially charged police scandals. Those included the now infamous events surrounding the 1989 murder of Carol DiMaiti Stuart, whose husband, Charles Stuart, told police she had been killed by a Black assailant. The lie prompted what many at the time described as a police roundup of dozens or more innocent Black men in Boston neighborhoods. Charles Stuart was later indicted for the murder of his wife. He killed himself before a trial took place.

“The police ran roughshod over the Black community,” recalled former City Councilor Charles Yancey, who represented the city’s 4th District, encompassing parts of Mattapan and Dorchester, for 31 years.

The commission, to be led by prominent Boston attorney James St. Clair, came to be known as the St. Clair Commission. At the time it was announced, Yancey had already been pushing for years for a civilian oversight board with subpoena powers and enforcement mechanisms that could hold police accountable to charges of misconduct. That effort would eventually fail, after support crumbled among a majority of Yancey’s colleagues on the City Council.

Yancey, like many, saw Flynn’s new commission as a stalling tactic.

“The St. Clair Commission was a strategic move” by Flynn, Yancey said, intended to address calls for reform without committing the mayor to any immediate action.

And Yancey said he sees parallels to today.

The appointment of commissions or task forces to review policing practices “may be well intentioned, but ultimately, they serve to buy time for whoever the mayor happens to be at the time,” Yancey said. “Particularly if that mayor doesn’t want to offend members of the Boston Patrolmen’s Association — because they have far more sway on the politics of Boston than ordinary citizens.”

Still, the 200-page St. Clair Commission Report, released in 1992, was scathing.

It recommended Mayor Flynn fire Police Chief Michael “Mickey” Roache.

(Flynn didn’t fire Roache. Instead, Roache resigned and ran against Flynn for mayor.)

This file photo from the City of Boston Archives shows Police Commissioner Francis “Mickey” Roache speaking at a podium, circa 1985-1987.

And the report highlighted various problems with the BPD, especially around the issue — still in contention — of whether the police can police themselves.

Flynn acted on some recommendations. But many fell by the wayside.

For example, the BPD’s investigations into complaints of police misconduct — a process the St. Clair Commission report said was “plagued by lengthy delays,” with investigations dragging on for months or even years.

The report stated investigations should be concluded in no more than 90 days.

But, 30 years later, a WGBH News review of police records found that while the average length of such investigations has been somewhat shorter under Walsh, in recent years, those investigations still took more than 600 days on average to be concluded by the BPD’s Internal Affairs Department — a far cry from the 90 days recommended in the 1992 St. Clair Commission Report.

“The reality is the average length of these investigations is unacceptable. And it reminds me of the adage: Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Racial Justice Initiative.

Hall has testified before the Boston Police Commission in favor of various reforms, including banning the use of tear gas or other chemical agents, limiting the use of so-called “no-knock” warrants, and instituting more transparency around the BPD’s internal review processes — including investigations into allegations of police misconduct.

It is unclear whether, or to what extent, the Boston Police Task Force will take up the question of investigations into such complaints in its pending report.

In appointing the task force in the first place, Walsh specified that the group should make recommendations toward “strengthening the existing Co-op Board,” a reference to the Civilian Ombudsman Oversight Panel, a civilian panel empowered to review, though not adjudicate, a limited number of police misconduct cases. That only happens after those investigations have been concluded by the BPD’s Internal Affairs Department.

The Co-Op, as it has come to be known, lacks the authority to investigate cases itself or to overrule a finding by the BPD sustaining or not sustaining a complaint against a member of the BPD.

“This is police officers policing police officers, and that doesn’t bode too well,” notes Carlton Williams, a Boston-based civil rights attorney who has represented citizens in complaints against police.

“Even without institutional pressures, you have someone who likely knows someone and probably shares their institutional mindset, not to even comment on their political mindset,” Williams said. “There aren’t a lot of Boston Police officers with, you know, Black Lives Matter stickers on their cars.”

Meanwhile, and as the Boston Police Task Force report remains pending, history is repeating itself.

Rather than waiting for the mayor to act on yet unknown recommendations, a group of City Councilors are pushing — as did Yancey — for true civilian oversight over alleged police misconduct.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who now represents the same district Yancey did, has co-sponsored, along with Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia, an ordinance that would create a new civilian oversight board, with enforcement teeth like subpoena powers.

“This is not a new idea,” Campbell acknowledges, in a nod to her predecessor.

And whether this time will be different remains an open question. Any substantial changes to the BPD, especially around how allegations of misconduct are handled, is sure to face resistance from the Boston Patrolmen’s Association, which represents most Boston police officers.

But, Campbell said, the current moment presents new opportunity.

“We are hearing from residents, whether through email or by phone, by the thousands,” Campbell said, adding that she believes that there is significant support for creating a civilian review board among her colleagues on the City Council.

“There is an alignment that I think hasn’t existed in the past.”