In the wake of protests about racism and police brutality that broke out in Boston and around the country, Mayor Martin J. Walsh is promising a slew of positive-sounding police reforms. Yet it’s still unclear how they will be enforced, or how any of them can actually make Boston police more accountable for bad behavior. And that’s concerning, given that current collective bargaining restrictions make it very difficult to discipline officers.
With Police Commissioner William G. Gross — the first Black official to hold that job in Boston — at his side, Walsh declared racism to be “a public health crisis.” Embracing former president Barack Obama’s call to mayors to pursue policing reforms, Walsh committed himself to the “Mayor’s Pledge.” And he created a task force, led by Wayne Budd, a former US attorney and longtime member of the city’s Black leadership.
Walsh is also taking $3 million from the police overtime budget and reallocating it to the Boston Public Health Commission. Meanwhile, the Boston Police Department also announced it is formally embracing eight specific reform prescriptions, which include banning chokeholds and strangleholds; de-escalation training; requiring a verbal warning before shooting at someone; requiring officers to exhaust all reasonable alternatives before using deadly force; banning shooting at moving vehicles; requiring officers to intervene when another officer uses excessive force; and requiring officers to report when they use or threaten force against a civilian.
The city is also ditching a controversial “hair test” that required job applicants and officers to clip a hair sample to have it tested for drugs. In legal challenges, plaintiffs have argued the test is racially biased, and false positives occur more frequently with black police officers than those of other races.
It’s hard to get very excited about yet another task force — or even about rhetoric that acknowledges racism as the poison it is. But Walsh does seem to genuinely recognize the need to step up in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd while under arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill at a store in Minneapolis.
“We’re not going to let this moment or this movement pass us by,” said Walsh at his Friday 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 so far, Walsh is also insisting he can make change happen outside the collective bargaining process that ultimately sets the terms of labor agreements between the city and its police force. There are four Boston police unions, all with their own contracts, which all expire on June 30. The contract with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association — which represents about 1,500 police officers — contains a short section on discipline that says no officer who has completed a one-year probationary period “shall be disciplined or discharged without just cause.” And resolving “just cause” is left to a Civil Service arbitration process that is binding and final.
While that process may sound fair on its face, in practice it makes it extremely difficult to hold officers accountable for misconduct, and often deters chiefs from even attempting to impose discipline. “There is no question that police chiefs take into account previous arbitration decisions when they give out discipline,” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Bureau, a law enforcement think tank based in Washington D.C. Added Wexler, “Very few arbitrators are going to favor termination, for if they did they wouldn’t be selected to serve the next time. So chiefs have to make decisions based on what they think will be accepted. And that inevitably is far less consequences than termination, even when the circumstances require it. Union power in places like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Minneapolis really has a huge effect on personnel decisions.” The inability to hold officers accountable, in turn, contributes to the culture of impunity that makes abuses more likely in the first place.
Ideally, state lawmakers would just take discipline out of the collective bargaining process. But as long as cities and unions haggle over the disciplinary process, it’s the responsibility of local leaders like Walsh to sign deals that make real accountability possible.
On Friday, Walsh took time to recognize members of the Boston Police Department who, he said, are committed to policing and positive reforms. “They, too, want to be part of the solution. They continue to deserve our respect and gratitude.” And so they do. It’s those police officers who are not committed to reform that are a problem, and so is rooting them out.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial misstated the size of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association. According to the city, the union representing police officers has about 1,500 active members.
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