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‘Not good enough’: City councilors, activists increase pressure on Walsh for police change

Last week, protesters linked arms to form a barricade to protect the police following a rally and vigil in Boston.
Last week, protesters linked arms to form a barricade to protect the police following a rally and vigil in Boston.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

City councilors and activists ratcheted up pressure Monday on Mayor Martin J. Walsh to put forth specific police reform proposals, as the movement to reexamine police spending gained momentum across the United States and in Boston.

Walsh said on Sunday that Boston will reallocate some of its police budget, but he has yet to specify where the money would go. City Councilor Andrea Campbell said Monday that Walsh’s words were insufficient.

“Not good enough," she said after a meeting with community leaders of color. Campbell said the city needs "an action plan that is specific as to what we're going to do to transform our policing systems."

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Community activists and security analysts had differing views Monday of what a so-called defunding process would look like, and the role police officers should play in the community, as the efforts to reexamine law enforcement budgets gained new traction on the third week of protests across the country following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

Local advocates painted a picture Monday of a city committed to uplifting communities by expanding social-service programs that would prevent youth from entering the criminal justice system.

Police leaders past and present said they have been trying to do the same thing for years. They emphasize Boston has long leaned into community policing, with officers engaging residents at local meetings and at parks, in corner stores and on bikes.

“We know community policing works, and we need to figure out what the next steps are, where to make investments, but I don’t think that means taking investments out of the police department,” said Daniel Linskey, a former chief superintendent of the Boston Police Department.

Amid outrage over police brutality, specifically in Black and brown communities, Walsh has been growing increasingly receptive to proposals to reallocate police funding.

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He is set to submit a new budget proposal in the coming days to the City Council, which will hold a public hearing on Tuesday.

“I’m continuing to have conversations with councilors and my staff about what our budget will look like this year because now is a time to roll up our sleeves and get real work done, not separately as the mayor and City Council, but together as one government,” he said in a statement Monday. “I am committed to making real change and making Boston a national leader in building a more just future.”

In an online petition, community activists, including Families for Justice as Healing, Muslim Justice League, and Youth Justice and Power Union, called on Walsh to cut 10 percent of the city’s roughly $414 million in spending for police, including $40 million from the department’s $60 million overtime budget.

“Those funds should be reinvested in the needs of Black and brown communities, including providing housing and jobs to people released from prison,” states the petition, which has been signed by more than 5,000 people.

On Monday morning, Walsh committed an additional $4.1 million in funding for a city jobs program, bringing the total to more than $11 million that will help more than 8,000 youth. During a City Council committee meeting later Monday, several councilors noted the preventive benefits of community programming like providing jobs for teenagers.

“I know that when we create opportunities for young people to define and identify what brings them the greatest joy and what their purpose in life is, then young people will always be apt to stay the course,” said Councilor Julia Mejia, one of the first to propose using the council’s budgetary powers to force change in the police department. “We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us.”

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Campbell agreed.

“It is proven that when people have good jobs and good opportunity and equitable economic opportunity," she said, "they are less likely to turn to behavior that is not productive. They are less likely to end up in a gang, or in our criminal justice system. It is important to invest in the forefront, not at the end.”

On Monday, Campbell also convened a Zoom meeting of various community leaders of color, including representatives from the ACLU and the NAACP, as well as Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins. Campbell said the public safety working group is intended to “push the envelope” on police issues.

“All of us agree that change is necessary,” she said.

Advocates pointed to the friction between police and Black and brown communities, including in Boston and to what they called a historic problem that has led to systemic oppression. The only way to address that oppression, they said, is to focus more on supporting public health and educational programs, such as jobs training.

Fatema Ahmad, of the Muslim Justice League, one of the community groups behind the defunding campaign in Boston, said government’s focus on supporting communities shouldn’t be through a law enforcement lens.

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“Folks want housing, and health care, and education, and youth jobs, and all of these other things,” she said. Police “are controlling so much funding that should go to community groups.”

She welcomed Walsh’s commitment to reallocating resources, but said she was equally concerned with the city trimming its overall budget in the face of the recession. Those cuts should not come from community programs, she said.

Over the last 10 years, according to the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, the police department’s budget has grown by roughly 49 percent, to $414 million. Boston does not devote as much of its budget to police operations as other similar-sized cities do, according to a 2017 study by The Center for Popular Democracy.

But advocates pointed out that a notable chunk of spending, $60 million, goes toward police overtime — far more than the $40 million the city spends on libraries. In 2019, more than 500 police officers received more than the mayor’s $199,000 salary.

Law enforcement analysts said that police overtime and personnel costs, which make up more than 90 percent of the police budget, are set by union contracts. Any change to the contract would have to be agreed to by the police unions, which have proven to be a powerful political force in the city.

Several union representatives have not responded to Globe calls for comment in recent days. Commissioner William Gross did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Edward Davis, a former Boston police commissioner whose consulting business counts the Globe among its clients, said cuts to department funding could lead to layoffs.

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Linskey, the former chief superintendent, said cutting police budgets could force departments to scale back community programs, leaving officers responding to 911 calls and “putting out fires.”

“We’ve got strategies that have positively impacted communities. Are things perfect? No. Could we still do more? Absolutely,” he said. “But we should be identifying what it is the communities want . . . and how do we make that happen. But it’s probably going to require additional funding, not less funding.”

Eddy Chrispin, a Boston police sergeant who is president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, which has more than 350 members, attended Monday’s Zoom meeting set up by Campbell. In a phone interview, he called the idea of defunding police troubling, saying he worried about reductions to funds used for police engagement in communities, which would widen the gap between police and the people they serve.

"In the city of Boston, we do a ton of community engagement," he said.

Racism in America, he said, "is not just a police thing." It exists across all arenas of society, including corporate and government spaces, said Chrispin.

“It’s easy for people to point the finger at police and say, ‘They’re the root of all evil,’ " he said. “But look at how America operates.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.