The city did not call in every available Boston police officer last Sunday, when looting and violence wreaked havoc downtown and in the Back Bay following a peaceful march and demonstration protesting police brutality and systemic injustices, as Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the city was trying to strike a balance between safety “and understanding the very heart of the issue that brought this march together.”
Walsh confirmed the lack of a full call-up, where all available and able officers are called to work, for the department on Thursday, correcting comments he made at a news conference that afternoon. In a brief phone interview, Walsh indicated he misspoke at the news conference.
Full call-ups of Boston police officers have occurred in recent years when the department is expecting large crowds, including Super Bowls that have featured the New England Patriots and last year’s “Straight Pride Parade.”
“The Boston Police Department went into [last] Sunday’s march focused on keeping all participants safe, and respecting their space to protest and make their voices heard,” said Walsh in a statement. “As a city that prides itself on our strong community policing model, it was imperative to strike the right balance between having a police presence for safety, and understanding the very heart of the issue that brought this march together.”
The turmoil on the night of May 31 saw at least 27 people sent to the hospital, including nine police officers. More than 50 people were arrested as businesses were ransacked throughout the central retail districts of Downtown Crossing and Newbury and Boylston streets. Among the suspects charged was John Boampong, 37, of Dorchester, who is accused of firing a gun at officers during the late-night violence. Police clashed with protesters in ugly scenes in the heart of the city. A police cruiser was set on fire on Tremont Street. Walsh on Thursday said he did not yet have an estimate for fiscal damage done by the destruction.
Boston police typically does not detail strength of force numbers. In March, a department spokesman said Boston police had more than 1,900 available for duty.
Boston police Commissioner William Gross said in a statement this week that “Sunday’s protest had a multi-agency response together with State Police, Transit Police, with others on standby and later activated as events escalated and, in some cases, turned violent.”
“[Last Sunday] our officers were focused on keeping the peace, and building relationships with members of the community to demonstrate that we were there to keep them safe as they exercised their First Amendment right,” said Gross in a statement.
Some demonstrators at the May 31 event thought the police response was antagonizing and incited mayhem.
Yana Lazarova-Weng, an 18-year-old Brookline resident, for instance, said she was standing on Beacon Street in front of the State House sometime after 9 p.m. when three police cars came down the roadway, causing demonstrators to scramble out of the way and dispersing the crowd. She said the cars came without warning, and she called the episode “terrifying.” She said the protesters, in that spot, at that time, were acting peacefully.
“I thought the police response was really irrational, especially when the protesters weren’t being violent at all,” she said.
More police, she said, would have made the situation worse, given that the crux of the march was “protesting the system that police enforce.”
Some experts cautioned that more police does not necessarily mean less destruction.
“There’s no guarantee,” said Brenda Bond-Fortier, a Suffolk University professor who recently wrote a book about police reform. “It really depends.”
Bond-Fortier thought authorities will look at how events on May 31 were handled “with a fine-tooth comb” and “and see what they could have done differently.”
Thomas Nolan, a retired Boston police officer who teaches criminology and criminal justice at Emmanuel College, said “more cops can mean more trouble, more cops can exacerbate the situation.”
Nolan did not think “it would be fair to characterize the police response as inadequate to the task” on May 31. The city, he said, was well-prepared to meet and handle the protest.
While there was no full call-up for BPD last Sunday, there was a significant law enforcement presence downtown and the Back Bay late that night. The National Guard, which was on standby, was called in, as were many regional police departments, something Nolan thought constituted a “hyper-exaggerated” and unnecessarily over-the-top response.
“There’s no place for a military presence here on the streets,” he said.
David Procopio, a State Police spokesman, said that for all significant events, including the Boston protests, the agency engages in “comprehensive planning for assignment and coordination of personnel in order to fulfill the mission at hand.”
“That mission, in such operations, is to protect lives and safety of all persons, maintain order, minimize traffic congestion, protect properties for which we have principal responsibility, and provide support to any municipality that requests assistance in responding to civil unrest,” he said in an e-mail.
Procopio said that on May 31, State Police deployed additional troopers to protect the State House, for which the agency has the primary responsibility. The agency also provided a detachment of troopers to Boston police to help wherever requested.
“We do not publicly release specific details of pre-event intelligence or personnel strength for any specific operation for security reasons,” said Procopio.
According to Walsh’s office, last Sunday’s demonstration, and the protests that followed in the days since, have not had any permits, a step the city requires of all large-scale public gatherings. The permits, his office said in an e-mail, “ensure that appropriate and adequate city resources are made available as needed.” Authorities said for past events like the “Straight Pride Parade” or championship parade celebrations, a detailed plan is made available to the city to ensure that appropriate resources are dedicated and proper precautions are taken to ensure the safety of all.
“Importantly, organizers did not identify an end time for the protest, or a route for [last] Sunday’s march, which helps police assign officers to certain areas to ensure the safety of all participants,” the mayor’s office said.
Attempts to reach the organizers of the May 31 demonstration for comment failed last week.
Daunasia Yancey a local activist who spoke at the demonstration in Nubian Square last Sunday and marched to the steps of the State House, said during a recent interview, “I think the greater the revolution, the greater the repression.”
She favored defunding police, saying the money should go toward communities in ways other than “gearing up” law enforcement with gadgets and weaponry.
“Everything the police do is bad,” she said. “Their job is to repress the movement and to work in the interest of the state.”