Advocates for police reform in Newton are calling for transparency and community engagement as Mayor Ruthanne Fuller’s bid to reimagine policing in the city faces two fronts: a search for a new chief and the launch of a task force to conduct a sweeping review of the department in the wake of the national Black Lives Matter movement.
Police Chief David MacDonald told Fuller Tuesday that he would retire from the department, less than a day after the mayor announced that a panel would examine Newton’s police force and she would reallocate budgeted police funds for that effort.
Calls for changes in the department follow a May 20 stop of a Black resident by Newton officers searching for a for a suspect in a Boston fatal shooting. Fuller, like her counterparts in Boston and Framingham, has declared racism a threat to public health, and wants to move quickly.
Her proposed nine-member task force would begin work the first week of July and make recommendations on the overall strategic direction for policing in Newton.
“The residents of the city of Newton are committed to being a just, and welcoming, and safe community,” Fuller said in an interview. “So I feel surrounded by people full of goodwill, trying to [move] forward on what has been an intractable issue of systemic racism.”
The Rev. Devlin Scott, the lead pastor of NewCity Church, said appointing a new chief is important moving forward.
“It should not take long, we cannot leave that [in] a vacuum in a time like this. I would encourage the mayor to move strategically and quickly,” Scott said. “We can’t talk police reform without a leader for the police. This person should participate in the reform conversations... you want this person to live it, to breathe it.”
But the speed in which Fuller has proposed to move concerns Josephine McNeil, the founder of Citizens for Affordable Housing in Newton Development Organization. McNeil said those who are affected by policing are typically underrepresented in Newton’s city government.
McNeil said the city should expand outreach to those who may not have heard of Fuller’s initiative, including by reaching out to property managers at housing developments in the city.
“If you don’t have the right people at the table, what you do isn’t going to be as meaningful as you want it to be,” McNeil said. “Hopefully, what you will have is representation of the communities who are most impacted by the insensitivity of the police, and the way that they do their jobs.”
In a televised speech Monday night, Fuller called for “re-imagining” the city’s police department, and also announced changes to the force, including a ban on chokeholds and a requirement that officers intervene in cases of excessive force.
Candidates for the task force have until Monday, June 22, to e-mail her their resumes and their interest in serving on the panel.
As part of the city’s outreach, Fuller said she has met with groups including the Newton Coalition of Black Residents, Families Organizing for Racial Justice, the city’s Human Rights Commission, and Defund NPD, a group of young people calling for reallocating at least 10 percent of the police budget to other community services.
“I’m reaching out, as well, to individuals here in Newton, trying to make sure we have lots of people coming forward to serve on the Newton Police Reform Task Force. And I’m pleased that so many people are e-mailing me and expressing interest,” Fuller said. “There is always a tension between urgency and broad reach, [and] we’re trying to make sure we do both,” Fuller said.
Fuller said she will also work closely with unions representing police.
In a statement, the Newton Police Association, which represents rank and file officers, said it is committed to working with Fuller and the City Council in search of constructive solutions to policing issues as they are identified in Newton.
“While we believe that the Newton Police Department is well grounded in the delivery of its policing services through respect and fairness for all, we also know that we can always be better. We will strive with other stakeholders for progress towards that goal,” the union said in the statement.
Fuller said she is thinking deeply about the process for naming an acting chief and finding a permanent head of the department. A date for MacDonald’s retirement hasn’t been set yet, both Fuller and MacDonald said in separate interviews Wednesday.
“As mayor, I have always welcomed input on important decisions and look forward to understanding what qualities and experience [community members] will be looking for in our next full-time chief,” Fuller said.
Whoever takes over the department will succeed MacDonald, 56, who has been with Newton’s police since 1993.
In an interview, MacDonald said he had already intended to step down in November, when he would have put in five years as chief. Recently, he said, increasing health and family concerns led him to decide to retire earlier.
Fuller praised the long-time officer as a true public servant who loves policing and loves the city: “He put the department and the city ahead of himself.”
Fuller said MacDonald has been actively working with her as part of Newton’s response since the killing of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody, which helped drive national Black Lives Matter protests against police violence.
And in recent weeks, Newton police have been criticized for the May 20 stop of resident Tim Duncan, during which an officer drew his gun. MacDonald said he has spoken directly with Duncan since the incident.
MacDonald said important issues have been raised by protesters and politicians, but the response from some local officials played a role in his choice to retire early.
“Bringing these issues up is important,” MacDonald said. “But the reaction to it, and the skepticism with which I’ve been met [by] certain people on the City Council -- it did assist my decision.”
MacDonald said he has been accessible to city officials, and has a close working relationship with several councilors. He had planned an open house with city councilors at the department, but those plans were derailed when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
“I’ve never shied away from difficult work,” MacDonald said. “But in this environment, perhaps it is time for a different set of eyes to come in. Because when you are in a place for a long time, sometimes you might not see things. I acknowledge my humanness in that factor, but I will also say that the city of Newton has always gotten hard work and good intentions out of me every day of my career.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.