Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said Monday she would form a civilian task force to examine the city’s police department, amid growing calls for reform after a Black resident was stopped by Newton officers, one of whom had his gun drawn.
Fuller also said police would ban chokeholds and require officer intervention in cases of excessive force, and she will reallocate plus $200,000 from the police budget to hire a consultant to help the independent Newton Police Reform Task Force do its work.
The mayor, in a speech televised Monday night, called for a “holistic reassessment” of the role of policing in Newton.
“Our community prides itself on our core values of respect, diversity and acceptance. We must live up to these words,” Fuller said.
The moves for Newton police reform come amid calls from the national Black Lives Matter movement for officials to put an end to police violence against Black Americans and people of color, following the recent deaths of Blacks at the hands of law enforcement officers, including George Floyd, 46,who died Memorial Day while a Minneapolis police officer pushed his knee into Floyd’s neck.
Locally, demands on Fuller and other public officials in Newton to defund police arose after Tim Duncan,a 50-year-old Black man, was stopped along with his wife by local police looking for a suspect in a fatal Boston shooting. During the minutes-long encounter, a Newton officer drew his gun, and Duncan said he feared to reach for his wallet, concerned that police would think he had a weapon.
As Fuller pledged immediate action to address systemic racism in Newton, others in the community say further steps are needed.
Local groups like Green Newton, Engine 6, and the Newton Interfaith Clergy Association, a majority of the City Council, and affordable housing advocate Josephine McNeil, all called on Fuller to launch an independent investigation specifically into Newton police’s handling of the May 20 incident with Duncan.
A probe of why police stopped Duncan is needed to help inform Fuller’s police board as it conducts its work, McNeil said in an interview.
"It's been highlighted that enough is happening in Newton that we need to stop and take a look," McNeil said. "What is going on in the community, and what we are doing -- and not doing -- to cause these incidents to happen."
Council President Susan Albright called for greater transparency from the city’s police department, and said she would also docket measures to consider review of the department’s use of force policy, the department’s treatment of minorities, and whether a police civilian oversight board should be formed in Newton.
“It’s time for us to be more public about the role of police in Newton,” Albright said.
Newton Police Chief David MacDonald, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment, announced his retirement on Tuesday.
Fuller’s plans for the city’s new independent Newton Police Reform Task Force will focus on examining the police department and make recommendations on the “overall strategic direction” for Newton’s policing efforts, including its policies and procedures.
It will look closely at areas like recruiting, hiring, and training, as well as misconduct, discipline, and accountability, she said.
The board’s work will be based on what people of color are experiencing in Newton, she said, and will be based on interviews, surveys, and input from focus groups.
Fuller asked residents interested in serving on the nine-member board to e-mail her by June 22; Fuller said she wants the new board to start meeting in early July.
Other measures will include Newton adopting reforms proposed by the 8 Can’t Wait campaign, a national effort to require law enforcement to adopt rules intended to reduce police violence, Fuller said.
In her discussions with Newton residents, Fuller said a Black resident shared her deep fear for her teenage son when he jogs in Newton. One resident lamented the achievement gap for students of color, she said. A man said he feared for his life when stopped by Newton police close to his home, she said.
“These residents’ statements have been recent, but the worry, pain, hurt, and injustice has spanned their lifetimes. This has been their reality all along,” Fuller said. “We are in a world of hurt right now.”
The encounter between Duncan and police came just days before Fuller and other top local leaders issued a statement pledging that Newton’s city government would work against racism and injustice.
The statement referenced the deaths of Floyd, along with Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old who died in her Louisville home when police shot her while serving a warrant; and Ahmaud Arbery,25, who was killed while jogging near his South Georgia home during a confrontation with three white men.
Fuller, in her speech Monday, referred to Rayshard Brooks, 27, who was killed after he was shot twice in the back by Atlanta police June 12.
A group of residents called on officials during a virtual meeting last week to defund the city’s department, similar to proposals made in other US cities in recent days.
Following that meeting, several city councilors, including Albright, backed a budget resolution to fund an analysis of the city’s police department, with the goal to “reorganize and reimagine policing” in Newton.
In an interview, Albright said councilors received more than 500 e-mails calling on city officials to defund the police, and some criticized the resolution as not going far enough.
Officials must know more about Newton’s police before making any changes, Albright said.
"We know there are issues, there are problems," Albright said, noting that the incident involving Duncan was "an example of it. But you can't blindly punish police, you have to know what will work, and make it better."
Alongside Albright, at least 16 of her City Council colleagues said they supported an independent probe of Duncan’s stop by police -- including Deborah Crossley, Andreae Downs, Alison Leary, Pamela Wright, Emily Norton, Rick Lipof, Julia Malakie, Holly Ryan, Becky Walker Grossman, Jake Auchincloss, Josh Krintzman, Andrea Kelly, Vicki Danberg, Bill Humphrey, Maria Scibelli Greenberg, and Alicia Bowman.
McNeil and Albright echoed Fuller in separate interviews and said the city should look beyond policing in its work to identify how race, ethnicity, and income affect residents in other areas, like housing and zoning more of the city for multi-unit development.
McNeil, a Black woman who has lived in the city for 36 years and is the founder of the local group Citizens for Affordable Housing in Newton Development Organization, called on the city’s elected leaders for accountability and transparency in a June 9 letter.
In the letter to city officials, McNeil said an independent investigation is needed to determine what officials knew about the Duncan incident, when they knew it, and what they did about it.
She also called for a racial equity assessment of Newton's institutions, and said Fuller should fund an effort led by a person of color to assess how those organizations consider their impact on communities of color, particularly Blacks.
In an interview, McNeil pointed to the treatment of Duncan by police, along with past incidents, including cases of racial slurs appearing at Newton schools earlier this year.
Many of these incidents don’t come to light unless there is a public outcry, she said. Duncan posted a Youtube video about his experience, and it was students at Newton North who first drew attention to the use of slurs at their school.
In the past, many have been turned off by speaking openly about how race impacts the experience of daily life, she said.
“People need to begin talking about race and racism, and the history of this country,” McNeil said. “One of the biggest issues that we have is that people don’t understand the history -- the legacy of slavery.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.