Racism is a public health crisis in Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared Friday, responding to glaring racial inequities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and massive protests against police abuse that he said served as a call to action.
The announcement included a new independent commission to review Boston police rules and guidelines, and a plan to reroute $12 million in police overtime spending — 20 percent of the department’s overtime budget — toward other programs, including $3 million to the Boston Public Health Commission for programs to combat systemic racism and economic and racial inequities.
“We’re not going to let this moment or this movement pass us by," Walsh said at a news briefing outside City Hall. "I pledged to make Boston a national leader in this work and we are following through on our pledge.”
But community advocates emphasized that the mayor’s declaration is only a first step in uprooting systemic racism — one they say will be rendered meaningless if the city does not multiply its investment in racial equity programs and redouble its efforts to listen to the people most affected.
Declaring a public health crisis allows the mayor to move forward with a plan to use city funds to combat what he called a systemic problem that the city for too long has looked past. A number of other communities across the United States have similarly declared public health emergencies around racism, including Somerville.
The mayor’s move was quickly welcomed by city councilors who have pushed the city over the last several years to do more to address racial and economic inequities. Still, they said the mayor could do more.
“The people have spoken loud and clear about what we need, and that is major reforms to the way we fund our police," Councilor Julia Mejia said in a statement. “We’ve received literally thousands of calls, e-mails, tweets, and more calling for at least a 10 percent reduction in the overall police budget. So while the current proposal . . . is a good start, there is a lot of room for improvement.”
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who had urged the city to declare racism a public health emergency in March, said Boston needs to remain committed to addressing the root causes of racism and inequities, saying they are systemic.
“That’s not something that is going to be announced and completed in a day,” he said. “It requires real systemic solutions that have longevity, long-term focus, and a plan that calls into action how it actually corrects or checks a system.”
In addition to the $3 million for the Public Health Commission, Walsh said he would redirect $2 million in police overtime spending toward housing security programs; $2 million to supporting minority- and women-owned businesses; $2 million to violence prevention, food security, immigrant advancement, and human rights programs; $2 million to mental health programs deployed by the police department; and $1 million to trauma counseling and other public health programs.
Experts said correcting the harm done to Black communities and communities of color by institutional racism will take far more investment.
“To fix structural racism would take much more," said Dr. Mary Bassett, a public health expert and director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University.
While Bassett applauded Walsh for recognizing that addressing racism will require investment, she said the initial allocation is “not enough to tackle the issues that [Walsh] appropriately mentioned in the announcement.”
Khalil Gibran Muhammad, professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, suggested creating a tax specifically to fund the city’s efforts to address racism as a public health issue.
“The public needs to own it,” Muhammad said. Without a direct, consistent revenue source for public health initiatives, “these calls for commissions and committees and advisory groups are not going to do very much.”
The mayor said the initial investments were only a start. “This is a significant program of reforms and investments,” Walsh said, adding that budget announcements are “important but they’re certainly not enough.”
In addition, the mayor named former US attorney Wayne Budd to lead a commission, made up of members of the legal community, faith community, and civil rights activists, to review police use-of-force policies and other equity issues in the Boston Police Department.
“We’ve been advocating for the mayor to use his executive authority . . . so we are pleased that he has chosen to do so on this issue," said Tanisha Sullivan, president of Boston’s NAACP, who was named to the commission. “The declaration today really does give us a tool to get to where we need to be, but it certainly is not the end of the road."
Sullivan said a full commitment to dismantling racism would include reallocating funds from departments across the city, not just the police department, and assessing all city laws and ordinances for potential racial bias. She added that she was concerned by the lack of representation of grass-roots organizers and protesters on the commission.
Though the mayor cited recent protests as one catalyst for his announcement, the leaders behind the largest of those protests have yet to receive a formal seat at the table.
“You cannot leave out grass-roots organizations and the people themselves,” said Karlene Griffiths Sekou, a Black Lives Matter Boston organizer with a background in public health. “The people who need to be at the table are the people who work at community health centers . . . the actual families and communities."
“I think that the city overall needs to get in the habit of talking to the people closest to the problem,” said Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of Violence in Boston Inc. and the organizer who led tens of thousands in protesting police brutality in Franklin Park last Tuesday. “None of those organizations on his task force have led any protests.”
“I don’t think it’s intentional, I just think it’s blind spots," she added. “That just highlights that more work needs to be done.”
Another community organizer, James Mackey, was less convinced of the city’s intentions.
“It’s great that [Walsh] has some of the organizations that are doing some great work in the community. Yet and still, I’m skeptical of the timing of this," Mackey said.
“The people really organized well enough to get him to move. But the question becomes . . . what does that look like over the next five years?”
Walsh stressed that the work of reversing inequities must be broad-based and sustained. He cited statistics that he said show the work the city and police department have already done to decrease use-of-force complaints, arrest rates, and overall crime.
Walsh made a clear effort to praise police officers, whom he said are “truly committed” to community policing and police reform. “They have made this progress . . . by lifting people up, not locking people up,” Walsh said.
His remarks Friday also came one day after Boston police announced changes to the department’s use-of-force policy and pledged to bring an innovative policing initiative from New Orleans to the city.
Walsh also said the city is jettisoning hair testing of police officers and new recruits for drug use, an issue that the top department managers zealously defended for years even as the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and Lawyers for Civil Rights repeatedly argued the testing unreliably generated false positives for minority officers.
The Globe reported in 2016 that the city had at that time spent $1.6 million in legal fees defending the hair test in state and federal court.
Boston Police Commissioner William G. Gross also attended Friday’s briefing. While he praised police efforts, he said he recognized that residents want to make sure the “cowardly murder” of George Floyd isn’t replicated in Boston. The 46-year-old Black man was killed in Minneapolis when a white police officer pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
“We have one of the top community policing models,” Gross said, citing the oft-touted approach to policing that focuses on building relationships in neighborhoods — “working in partnership to solve problems and create a better quality of life for all.”
But Gross appeared to acknowledge that police are now asked to perform functions that might be better left to social services.
“Quite frankly, what I’ve heard in the community is we wear too many hats anyway,” Gross said, noting that police are called for matters including truancy, minor disturbances on school buses, and people suffering from mental illness. “How many hats do you want us to wear? I think that responsibility should be spread out.”
Danny McDonald and Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.
Dasia Moore is the Globe Magazine's staff writer. E-mail her at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore. Milton J. Valencia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617.