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Council probes police reform questions

Reforms have been passed, but police and civilians debate implementation

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO

Last year, in the wake of nationwide protests stemming from the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd, Boston and Massachusetts officials passed measures aimed at reforming policing including restricting use of deadly force and crowd control measures.

Last week, the Boston City Council held a hearing to probe how the state reforms would be implemented at the local level.

But just before the meeting on March 2, Baker administration officials told the council they couldn’t attend.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said that this is a trend when dealing with the state, and it creates problems when questions about laws can’t be answered.

“Their lack of presence here does not shield them from accountability,” Arroyo said at the start of the hearing.

Community members then detailed their concerns about how the state and city’s police reforms would play out in the future. The state’s bill creates a Police Officer Standards and Training commission that can certify and decertify officers based on conduct.

The city’s police reform ordinances include an Office of Police Accountability and Transparency with power to investigate the BPD, new hiring practices and other changes to be filed in the future.

The amount of progress that can be made as the year goes on is dependent upon the amount of police buy-in, said Jeff Sawyer, member of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild. But no Boston Police Department representatives attended the hearing.

“It is very disturbing that the police have chosen not to participate in the hearing today,” Sawyer said. “If the police are not even going to participate in a public hearing about this law, it is difficult to believe that they are going to implement the duty to intervene when they see a police officer breaking the law.”

Carrie Mays, a youth activist based in Boston who organized Black Lives Matter protests, gave testimony about a personal traumatic experience with a Boston police officer. Underscoring the need for continuing reform, Mays said that she could have been the next Sandra Bland or Breonna Taylor, both of whom died because of involvement with police.

“On the day before my 18th birthday, five officers pulled a gun out on me, my mom and grandmother in our own driveway. They held us at gunpoint out of ‘mistaken identity,’” Mays said.

Though there were no BPD representatives to respond to concerns, representatives of police affinity groups did attend. David Hernandez, an officer representing the Latino Law Enforcement Group of Boston, gave insight to what reform looks like within the department. His group formed in 2017 to address diversity problems, putting together recruitment programs for people of color.

“LLEGO Boston created the Pre-Academy Training Program back in 2019, developed to assist inner-city students, specifically people of color, to become police officers … We have successfully put on two programs since then,” Hernandez said.

So far, the group has had 75% people of color in the classes and a 100% success rate in passing through the Boston Police Academy and State Police Academy.

Hernandez is adamant about continuing to diversify the police, which Mayor Martin Walsh has also aimed to do. At the request of the task force he convened in June of 2020, Walsh filed an ordinance creating a pipeline between Boston’s public schools and the BPD. Hernandez added that the conversation around police needs to change in the community, “instead of saying that everyone is bad.”

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association also sent President Larry Calderone to speak to police sentiments around the issue.

“Not to say that people aren’t experiencing what they say they’re experiencing on the street, but I don’t read about Boston police officers in the paper being accused of things that may happen in other parts of the country,” Calderone said.

Another civilian, Harrison Clark, 21, spoke about a friend’s personal experience. The friend was “visibly shaken up,” he said, after being approached by police about his vehicle.

“He was pulled over on the highway in Boston and surrounded by these four or five police cars with weapons drawn, and he was forcibly taken out of the car and put in the back seat,” Clark said.

He said the officers told his friend that the rented car was involved in criminal activity he had no affiliation with.

“I wish that I would just see more done from the administration. I always see people acknowledge problems, but I want to see implementation of real policies,” Clark said.

Councilor Andrea Campbell said that these incidents highlight the need for the city’s new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency to be implemented right away, because it would house a Civilian Review Board where people like Clark’s friend could file a complaint to an independent investigative board.

“It’s one thing to come to our hearing for us to listen to these concerns,” Campbell said, “but [the OPAT is needed] so that folks have a place to go to truly get some sense of accountability.”