Under pressure from city councilors and residents to make changes to police funding, Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Wednesday said that just cutting the budget won’t answer the call for systemic change in the way law enforcement is carried out in Boston.
Walsh said he has no plans to lay off public safety personnel, and believes police reform can be implemented outside of agreements with law enforcement unions. He promised that his administration will soon release a new citywide spending plan.
Walsh has signaled he is open to reallocating some of the city’s $414 million police budget, and argued Wednesday that arbitrary cuts don’t fix big problems.
“I mean cutting the budget, just cutting the budget, doesn’t solve anything,” he said at a news conference. “Cutting the budget doesn’t deal with racism. Cutting the budget doesn’t deal with systemic issues. That doesn’t resolve anything.”
With demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism continuing, some advocates and residents are pushing for Boston police’s budget to be slashed so the city can funnel more money toward community initiatives such as job training, wellness programs, and mental health treatment. Some have specifically pushed for reductions to the police overtime budget.
Walsh made his comments Wednesday just before the City Council met for the first time as a group since an emerging citywide campaign to reform the police department began. In their meeting, councilors agreed in a series of votes to press the administration for more information on issues ranging from the militarization of police equipment to the department’s tactics to restrain suspects.
“We have a duty and a moral obligation to protect the lives of our constituents,” Councilor Julia Mejia said.
She noted that momentum to bring reform is on the council’s side.
“We know it seems exhausting but we are on the verge of monumental change, we can all feel it,” she said. “We just need to keep on pushing.”
Over the last several years, councilors have urged the administration to do more to uplift Boston’s poorest communities, by expanding economic opportunities and access to health care and jobs. Councilors have pushed for more city contracts to go to minority-owned businesses, and for more equitable zoning codes and housing development.
A City Council review in 2019 found that less than 1 percent of the city’s $664 million in contracts went to minority- or women-owned businesses.
The disparate effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Black and brown communities, and the outrage over police abuse of those communities, including the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, have intensified those calls for action.
“It’s going to take a whole host of issues to transform the system,” Councilor Andrea Campbell said, adding that the painful incidents have councilors questioning, “what does it mean to evaluate our own systems.”
Later, Campbell said in an interview she wanted to know what Walsh wants to have happen in terms of police reforms, what his timeline is, and what proposals he is presenting to police unions.
Due to lost revenue as a result of the pandemic, Walsh said Wednesday that the city could propose a budget for next fiscal year that is $65 million to $80 million smaller than what was being considered at the start of the budgeting process. He said his administration is expected to resubmit a budget proposal to the City Council next week and noted that his budget staff was meeting with police on Wednesday to discuss that department’s funding.
About 90 percent of the police department’s budget is related to personnel costs, according to city records. Asked if significant reductions to that budget would mean police layoffs, Walsh said, “I won’t be laying any public safety off."
Walsh also defended his management approach to the city’s police, saying that he has kept his promise to have the department’s command staff reflect the community it serves. In 2018, Walsh tapped William G. Gross to lead the police force. Gross is Boston’s first Black police commissioner.
Walsh mentioned the reinstatement of a cadet program, which trains young people interested in a career in law enforcement, at the department and said his administration has worked on efforts that include deescalation and antiracism training for police. The cadet program was identified by Walsh as one way to boost diversity.
“That doesn’t mean we’re perfect by any stretch of the imagination, and there’s a lot of conversations going on, and I look forward to having those conversations,” he said.
Walsh was adamant that police reform can happen outside of collective bargaining with police unions. There are four Boston police unions, all have their own contracts, and all four of the contracts expire on June 30.
Attempts to reach union leadership on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
“Actually, I would probably argue most of the reform we can do is without the collective bargaining agreement,” Walsh said. “These are rules and regulations for the department that we can do.”
He added that, “There are some aspects that we have to collective bargain and we will do that if we have to in certain areas. Absolutely.”
Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said true police reform will always involve union agreements, but there are measures that can be taken outside of contract negotiations.
“Declaring racism as a public health emergency doesn’t require involvement with the union,” he said.
Also on Wednesday, the NAACP Boston demanded a collection of law enforcement changes.
The demands included establishment of a civilian review board with subpoena power, a 15 percent reduction to BPD’s budget with the funds being reallocated to community programs, a review and modification to Boston’s deescalation protocols, full implementation of the use of body-worn cameras by officers, including for overtime and detail shifts, and making use of banned tactics like a chokehold a firable offense.
Priscilla Flint-Banks, an activist and advocate from Roslindale who is the convener of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, thought that “there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have a civilian review board” that probes cases of police violence and misconduct.
“The police cannot police themselves,” she said. “We see that.”
Meanwhile, Governor Charlie Baker, asked Wednesday about the push to “defund" police, said he doesn’t “believe in slogans as a general rule.”
”And I certainly don’t support the whole concept that we should get out of the business of providing public safety to our communities," Baker told a WGBH reporter. “I don’t support defunding the police.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, city councilors pushed for examining the police department’s inventory of military-like equipment, reviewing the department’s use-of-force policies, and for an examination of the way police officers are deployed in schools. Councilors called for the city to consider restorative justice programs for students as alternatives to punishment.
“I’m concerned about the presence of police in our schools,” council President Kim Janey said, citing studies showing “suspensions and school discipline should be a last resort. We need to be doing everything possible to make sure students have access to classrooms and teachers at all costs.”
She added, “The receipts are clear, the punitive measures are hurting Black and brown kids. All of the issues that we’re dealing with in terms of racial bias, whether implicit or explicit, is playing out in our schools.”
The council also used its authority to demand records from the police department detailing its stockpile of military equipment. Councilor Michelle Wu noted the use of such equipment in recent protests, creating the image of a militarized force at odds with the community.
“We need to think about what it means to create a truly safe community, for every single person in that community,” Wu said.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this story.
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