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When a police officer takes a knee, what does it really mean?

Is it change in the making, or an empty gesture? How much the kneeling by police really means depends on what happens next.

Police officers took a knee alongside protesters after they converged at Forest Hills T Station following a rally and vigil for George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and local fallen people on Tuesday night.
Police officers took a knee alongside protesters after they converged at Forest Hills T Station following a rally and vigil for George Floyd, Breanna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and local fallen people on Tuesday night.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

What does it mean for police officers to take a knee?

Since the weekend, we’ve been seeing footage of police across the country assuming a posture of solidarity amid the massive protests against racism and brutality in their own or other departments.

They get cheers and handshakes from some protesters, and dismissal from others, who doubt their sincerity — doubts that are understandable, especially in cities where some of their colleagues have used shocking, excessive force to control marchers and others.

In Boston, we saw police kneel on Tuesday night, eventually obliging crowds chanting “take a knee,” at Forest Hills Station and Boston Police Headquarters.

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Officer Kim Tavares high-fived protesters and knelt by a barricade at headquarters, as several of her colleagues did the same behind her. The Police Department tweeted that the kneeling spoke “to the humanity of our officers and their undeniable desire to act in solidarity with our community.”

“All police officers don’t think the same,” Tavares told WCVB afterwards. “Black lives do matter.”

She seemed to mean it. Did they all?

Activists pleaded with the Boston Police to "take a knee" as they participate in a demonstration outside of the Forest Hills T Station.
Activists pleaded with the Boston Police to "take a knee" as they participate in a demonstration outside of the Forest Hills T Station. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Some officers want to separate themselves from a culture that ends in the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis and of other Black men by police across the country. Those inclined to hope can find it in that laudable fact. But kneeling is also clearly a de-escalation tactic. As crowd control techniques go, it’s far preferable to, say, using tear gas or herding a crowd with a police vehicle. And even as a tactic, it meant something, given the fact that some officers knelt while others refused, even after their colleagues had asked them to do so.

But how much the kneeling really means depends on what happens next.

Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, called it “a nice gesture,” but a limited one.

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“I don’t doubt that the police officers doing it have a level of remorse, or I’d like to think they do, for what they have seen, and that they want to distance themselves from . . . the George Floyd murder,” he said. But, Hall added, kneeling is “a sentimental gesture” unless it’s backed up with measures to hold police more accountable, and to reduce racial disparities in the way departments do their jobs.

Hall, and the elected officials who stood at a press conference outside the State House on Tuesday, have some ideas on that front, some of which they have been trying for years to make a reality.

At the federal level, it means restoring the Justice Department’s oversight of local police departments, from which President Donald Trump walked away in 2017, and its return to investigating civil rights violations. It means doing away with the legal doctrine of “qualified immunity,” which shields police officers from being sued for violating civil rights, and which may soon be taken up by the US Supreme Court.

It means better, standardized training for police officers across the state. It means overhauling the civil service system to open police departments to more diverse and more professional recruits. And it means clearer limits on the use of force, especially when it comes to choke holds. Beyond all of that, it means taking some of the resources spent on police and redirecting them to programs and workers that reduce violence, and deal with mental illness and drug abuse, in other ways.

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But good luck getting any of that past the police union, which wields immense power in this city, as in just about every other. Across the country, those unions have made clear their overwhelming allegiance to the president, and his lock-em-up philosophy. In Boston, they will brook no hint of criticism, accusing Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins, who has decried police brutality, of calling “all police officers murderers," and condoning violence against them.

“Instead of slandering our officers as murderers, you should be highlighting their professionalism and dedication to our city,” they wrote in a letter on Tuesday. Time and again, the union has stood in the way of accountability for officers who have no right to a badge, fighting for the reinstatement of colleagues whose jobs are restored by an arbitration process that almost always favors them. In 2018, five Boston police officers who had been reinstated after being fired from the department topped the municipal payroll, due largely to six-figure settlements that included back pay.

We’ve been lucky here in some ways. Boston hasn’t seen the deaths in police custody that have happened elsewhere and shocked the nation. Though there have been cases where families have alleged excessive force: The mother of Terrence Coleman, a mentally ill man shot by a Boston officer in 2016, has filed a civil suit against the city; and a federal judge on Tuesday refused to dismiss a suit by members of a Brighton family who were held at gunpoint by officers after they broke into the wrong home in 2018 (and for which Commissioner William Gross apologized). In 2016, the state’s highest court cited data on police stops collected between 2007 and 2010 to find that Black men in the city have a reasonable fear of being racially profiled.

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As these last few days of protests underline, police here and across the country still have plenty of work to do. Maybe those kneeling police officers see that, and truly want to be part of a new day.

Even so, just taking a knee isn’t going to make it happen.

Vernal Coleman and Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed reporting.


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.