After weeks of protests around the country — and amid City Council scrutiny and calls to cut the department’s funding — the Boston Police Department on Thursday announced changes to its use-of-force policy and pledged to bring an innovative policing initiative from New Orleans to the city.
The policy revisions align with recommendations to reduce violence against civilians that have risen to prominence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on May 25. The specific reforms, known collectively as “8 Can’t Wait," were largely part of department policy or new officers’ training here already, a Boston police spokesman said, but have been formally added to department guidelines where necessary.
“Our current rules and procedures include most of the suggestions in the '8 Can’t Wait’ campaign,” Sergeant Detective John Boyle said in a statement. “Upon review of our policies, the department has clarified its rules and implemented several reforms as a result of this review.”
Drafted by a campaign that emerged in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, a Black teenager, the eight items are billed as the first steps in a process that eventually leads to defunding police departments and creating safer societies by increasing focus on living conditions, like housing, public health, and fair wages. In the weeks since Floyd’s death, the campaign has been promoted by Oprah Winfrey, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, and former president Barack Obama.
Some officials and activists said the Boston review represented progress, but left work still to be done.
DeRay Mckesson, an activist and cofounder of Campaign Zero, which created the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, said after reviewing documentation of the policy changes that Boston police previously met four of the policy prescriptions and now meet seven.
“They did not update the policies to require comprehensive reporting, notably when an officer points a gun at someone or threatens to point a gun at someone. The current policy only requires reporting when an officer discharges a weapon,” Mckesson said. “It was ‘8 can’t wait,’ it wasn’t ‘almost 8 can’t wait,’ ” he said. “They are close, just not all the way there.”
The widespread demonstrations against racism and police brutality prompted the review of policy in Boston.
“Current events and ensuing civil unrest across the country has brought police reform to the forefront,” Boyle said. “One of the major issues for reform is use of force by police. All departments across the country should be reviewing their policies and procedures and making necessary changes as needed. As such, we have been reviewing our use-of-force rules to identify areas for improvement, and will continue to do so.”
Much of what’s included in the eight specific policy prescriptions were either already part of department policy or a part of officers’ training, according to the Boston police announcement. Those that were not already officially written into the department’s guidelines are being added. They include:
- Training officers in de-escalation, which was already part of recruits’ training but not written into the department’s use-of-force policy until Thursday.
- Requiring officers to use a force continuum, starting with nonlethal or less-lethal strategies, an existing policy.
- Restricting choke holds and strangleholds, which were already not taught or authorized. The department determined that its policy on them was “not strong enough,” and explicitly prohibited choke holds except in “very limited situations.”
- Requiring officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before they use deadly force, already a standard practice now officially in writing.
- Prohibiting officers from shooting at people in moving cars, an existing policy.
- Requiring officers to exhaust all reasonable alternatives before using deadly force, an existing policy.
- Requiring officers to intervene when another officer uses excessive force, an existing policy now highlighted in the use-of-force guidelines.
- Comprehensive reporting of both actual and threatened use of force, partially covered by existing policy, though reporting threats of force is not included; the department said the policy will continue to be reviewed.
The department also committed to bringing a peer-intervention program for police, pioneered in New Orleans, to Boston. The program, called Ethical Policing is Courageous, or EPIC, requires officers to intervene in other officers’ inappropriate conduct, regardless of rank.
In Minneapolis, three officers did not stop the officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck as he gasped for breath. All four were fired and criminally charged.
“EPIC has made all members of the New Orleans Police Department the first line of defense in preventing mistakes and misconduct, promoting mental health, and fostering a professional work environment,” Boyle said in the statement. “This is a very impressive program that we believe would be beneficial to all police departments, including the Boston Police Department.”
The Boston Police Department is not the only one promising reform in the wake of Floyd’s death: Police in Cambridge, Arlington, and Lowell announced that officers will now be required to intervene if they see colleagues using unreasonable force.
But activists and elected officials remained skeptical.
Daunasia Yancey, the founder of Black Lives Matter Boston, said the department is not doing enough to push for meaningful change.
“Boston police has a lot of these guidelines in their training already, and it’s not enough,” said Yancey, 28, adding that the city should be “defunding, disbanding, and demilitarizing the police.”
“Boston is often held as sort of a standard as to what quote-unquote ‘good policing’ looks like. . . . And we’re still in the place where we are. If Boston police are some of the best and safest police, they’re still killing people,” she said. “Boston likes to hold itself as this liberal beacon of goodness, and it’s not true, and that’s not Black people’s experience of this city."
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who has called on Mayor Martin J. Walsh to update the Police Department’s use-of-force policy, said the new policy language is a welcome first step.
“The Boston Police Department is right to make these changes," Campbell said. “Now we need to go much further, by implementing a real civilian review board, banning the use of military weapons in our streets, getting police out of our schools, and ensuring our Police Department reflects the diversity of our city."
City Councilor Michelle Wu said the issue isn’t just having an appropriate policy in place, but making sure there is accountability for officers to ensure they follow the rules.
She also advocated for a civilian review board, as well as statewide licensing of police and more funding for public safety and health responses to community issues that don’t involve police.
“As long as we are funding militarized police forces at the expense of public health, housing, schools, food security, we will be trying to fix the problem too late,” Wu said. “We need to start further upstream.”