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Councilors look to defund police programs, force reforms

Police officers stood by as protesters gathered in front of the Jamaica Plain police station. this week
Police officers stood by as protesters gathered in front of the Jamaica Plain police station. this weekJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Amid a growing national movement to redirect police department funding to public health and violence prevention efforts, several Boston city councilors on Friday vowed to use the upcoming municipal budget process to force changes in the Boston Police Department.

Councilors this week began to take an uncharacteristically skeptical look at police spending, in the wake of massive protests of police brutality and racism in and around Boston. On Thursday, they withheld approval of a $850,000 state grant for the Boston Regional Intelligence Center — typically a rubber stamp affair — amid concerns that a gang database racially profiles city immigrants and Black and brown youth.

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And councilors said they will press police officials and members of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s administration during the budget approval process over the next two weeks, seeking justification for spending on other police programs and advocating for reform proposals. Some of those proposals, such as the creation of a strong civilian oversight board that can hold police officers accountable, have been shelved in recent years but found new currency as the city and nation turn their attention once again to issues of racism and police brutality.

A public hearing seeking community input on the budget is slated for Tuesday, and councilors said they have already received thousands of e-mails from residents in recent days seeking greater police transparency and scrutiny of police spending that makes up about 15 percent of the overall city budget.

“This is about system reform, it’s not about individual police officers,” said Councilor Andrea Campbell, who chairs the council’s committee on public safety and criminal justice. “The question is, how do we reform our system to create greater outcomes, greater transparency.”

Councilor Michelle Wu proposed examining current police programs, such as the use of military-style equipment, and she and Campbell also called for a review of training standards. She pressed for state decertification laws that would prevent police officers with records of wrongdoing from being able to continue serving anywhere in Massachusetts.

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But, Wu said, the council should equally push to redirect existing resources to other areas where she believes spending has been lacking, such as affordable housing and health equity, the school system, and green space.

“It is important for our policies and training to reflect best practices, but that doesn’t solve the problem, and the problem is we are falling short in funding public health,” Wu said.

Several of the councilors’ proposals have been stalled for years. But they have moved to the forefront of the council agenda amid growing outrage over recent instances of police brutality, including the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old handcuffed Black man who died at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, who pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Protests and calls for action across the country have spurred cities nationwide to similarly shift resources from police to public health programs, part of a growing public policy effort — known as a People’s Budget campaign — to concentrate more on uplifting disenfranchised communities than arresting them. Authorities in Los Angeles, for instance, proposed cutting funding for that city’s police department by $150 million in the next fiscal year, and investing that money in the Black community.

Similar campaigns have sprouted in New York City, Nashville, and Grand Rapids, Mich. San Francisco authorities said they would redirect police funds, as well, though they did not commit to a figure.

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In a statement, Walsh said he has spent the last several days talking with his administration “about how we make sure we are not just reacting to the events in Minneapolis, but how do we make sure that we are responding in a way that’s meaningful and brings about systemic change.” He said he also reached out to councilors.

“Now is a time to roll up our sleeves and get some real work done, not separately as the mayor and City Council, but together as one government,” he said. “I am committed to making real change and making Boston a national leader in building a more just future.”

Boston spends more than $414 million a year on police personnel and programs, or more than 15 percent of its roughly $2.7 billion general fund allocation. Baltimore, by comparison, spends $480 million, or 25 percent of the general fund allocation, according to a 2017 study by The Center for Popular Democracy. Minneapolis spends $163 million, or 35 percent of total general funds. New York City spends 8 percent of its general funds on police.

In Boston, the police department makes up the largest chunk of department spending other than the schools system. More than $60 million is spent on police overtime alone, compared to $40 million for libraries.

Brian Higgins, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and a former police chief and public safety director in New Jersey, said police department budgets have ballooned in large part because officers have been asked to do more outside the traditional roles of law enforcement. “Policing is not cheap,” he said.

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Higgins said police departments may very well welcome a redirection of resources so that social service work can be handled directly by those in the social services field, though he said officials still need to maintain support for traditional policing and training.

Police investments should focus on, “how can the police serve you as your police force? What is your crime problem and how would you like us to address it?” Higgins said.

But community activists called on officials to think more broadly than policing crime, and to direct resources to prevent crime in the first place. That means providing adequate housing and food supplies, environmental justice, jobs, and education programs.

“We spend such a disproportionate amount on policing, over things people actually want and need and have been asking for,” said Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, who said the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate effect that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Black and brown communities have spotlighted those concerns.

“I’m not running into anybody who would say, ‘You know what would help me? More police,'” she said. “This isn’t about taking money away from the police, it’s really about shifting that money to the community, shifting that power to the community.”

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Councilor Kenzie Bok, who chairs the council’s committee on ways and means, which oversees budget matters, said she would push police authorities for a better breakdown of what is being spent, and where, amid calls from other councilors for an overhaul in the police system.

The council must explore “what it looks like for us to own collectively, our collective responsibility, for what public safety looks like, and whether it means actual safety for people of all skin colors," she said, “or whether it actually means danger for any of our fellow citizens.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.