Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Friday that he was “taken aback” by a strident letter sent to the city by the leadership of the Boston police unions with a host of demands, including that patrol officers be armed with long guns and supplied with new body armor equipment.
“I think there was some language in that letter that didn’t need to be used, and I’m not sure that letter reflects the overall feel of every officer of the city,” Walsh said. He would not support officers walking beats with long guns, he said. “There’s absolutely no need.”
Walsh joined a chorus of voices skeptical of the demands in the letter, which was addressed to Walsh and Police Commissioner William B. Evans and signed by the leadership of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, and Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society.
“Public safety is paramount, and police officer safety is right up there with it,” said Darnell Williams, president and CEO of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts. “But we want to make sure that we are not shifting the focus on community policing to military-style policing.”
The letter is undated, but was first reported Thursday. Union officials did not respond to repeated requests from the Globe for comment. The city is currently in contract negotiations with the police unions.
“The time has come to put ‘Politics’ aside,” the letter implores. “Police officers and other public safety personnel are being murdered across this country at an alarming rate.”
The letter describes Boston police as being “outgunned and undermanned,” and makes several demands: that the names and addresses of officers be removed from public documents; that officers be supplied with ballistic helmets, heavy armor ballistic plates for their bullet-resistant vests, and long guns; that the bomb unit be supplied with take-home motor vehicles for faster response times; that more police officers be hired; and that patrol supervisor vehicles be equipped with backup equipment including extra radios and batteries, first aid kits, and cases of water.
The unions’ letter contained grievances about state and national politics, including a charge that President Obama “has basically ‘fanned the flames of Police hatred.’ ”
In a statement, Evans said that keeping officers safe “is always foremost in my thoughts and I take the concerns of the unions seriously.”
City officials said that withholding names from public records would require a state statutory change.
Regarding the equipment demands, officials said that in recent years the city replaced $451,000 worth of firearms and $150,000 worth of high-powered tactical weapon vehicles known as “gun cars.” The city is spending $56 million on new radio systems and spends $3 million per year on new police vehicles. The city invests $350,000 a year on bullet-resistant vests, officials said, but the union has not agreed to a mandatory wear policy.
Over the past six years, officials said, personnel levels have increased by 17 officers. In the last year the city increased the recruitment class, and this summer the city brought in more than 40 police cadets.
Officials also noted that police union members received wage increases of 25 to 29 percent during the contract period that ended last month; that police spend about $60 million in overtime each year; and that the police department received much larger budget increases in fiscal 2017 than the school or fire department.
Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said that while it is important police feel safe, it is also important to look at what actually works — such as body cameras, which he noted have been shown to reduce use-of-force issues and complaints. Boston has a body camera pilot program, but no officers had stepped forward to wear the cameras as of Monday.
“It’s confusing that in Boston there have been zero volunteers to wear body cameras, and at the same time, there has been this request for more weaponry,” Segal said.
Former Boston police officer Thomas Nolan, who spent 27 years on the force and is now a criminology professor at Merrimack College, said the union letter was “shrill if not hysterical.”
The letter overstated the danger of policing, he said, noting that over the last four decades the number of officers killed in the line of duty has steadily dropped. Having officers carry long guns to calls, he said, would create needless fear, and officers already have access to high-powered firearms — they simply don’t carry them everywhere. Nationally, he said, police are moving away from highly militarized methods.
“The letter is a political appeal in the midst of protracted contract negotiations,” Nolan said.