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Amid moment of reckoning, some police chiefs leave the job to someone else

The sudden departures could signal the difficulty some police chiefs believe they face, or even their willingness to confront issues around race and violence.

David MacDonald has been with the Newton police force for 27 years, five as chief. He has not given an official leave date but indicated it would be this summer.
David MacDonald has been with the Newton police force for 27 years, five as chief. He has not given an official leave date but indicated it would be this summer.Haley Chi-Sing for The Boston Globe/Haley Chi-Sing for The Boston Globe/File


Amid demands for sweeping police reforms, the chiefs said all the right things. They agreed that their departments needed to take a hard look at themselves and that it was time for genuine self-reflection — and real change.

Then they stepped down to let someone else handle it.

Several area police chiefs, facing tough new calls for reform brought on by the national Black Lives Matter movement, have announced plans to retire. In Framingham and Newton, the police chiefs stepped aside within a day of being asked to review their departments’ internal policies and procedures.

“I think people were a little surprised with how quick it happened,” said Framingham City Councilor George King of the retirement of Chief Steven Trask. He announced his retirement the day after Framingham Mayor Yvonne Spicer declared racism a public health emergency and ordered the department to review its use-of-force policies and draft reforms.

Police chiefs in Revere and Johnston, R.I., have also announced plans to step aside. Harvard’s head of campus police said he will leave by the end of the year.

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Almost all said they had laid plans to retire well before the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis ignited nationwide protests. But the sudden departures, just as demands for reform were laid at their doors, coincide with some of the most sweeping calls for scrutiny in decades and could signal the difficulty some police chiefs believe they face, or even their willingness to confront issues around race and violence.

On Friday afternoon, Brookline police Chief Andrew Lipson abruptly announced his leave in a letter to town officials, declaring he would step down and return to the role as deputy, which allows him to stay on staff with certain civil service protections. In the letter, he did not explain his decision but only said his service as chief was “untenable.” The announcement was a victory and “no coincidence” for local activists who had demanded reforms in the police department, including the reallocation of 50 percent of its resources toward more social service oriented programs such as education, housing, and health programs.

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“This is institutional racism that we’re dealing with. We’re not just asking for one guy to quit. We want the whole system to change. This is a good first step. We’d like to see more from the town,” said Chiuba Obele, a Brookline resident and leading organizer in the movement to shift funds from Brookline police.

Framingham’s Trask, 55, who did not respond to Globe requests for comment, made his announcement last month, telling the MetroWest Daily News that, after 33 years with the force — and two years as chief — he wanted to spend more time with family. He gave just over a week’s notice. And while he agreed that “police departments are going to have to reassess the way we conduct business,” he said it might be a job for someone else.

“I don’t think it would be right for me to start the change and not finish it. I think it’ll take a few years,” he told the newspaper.

Newton Police Chief David MacDonald, 56, said in mid-June he would step down, less than a day after Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said she would appoint a civilian task force to examine police policies. MacDonald, who has been with the force for 27 years, five as chief, has not given an official leave date but indicated it would be mid-July.

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Fuller’s appointment of a task force — and MacDonald’s subsequent decision to leave — followed criticism of the police department’s conduct involving Tim Duncan, a Black resident who was stopped by officers at gunpoint while he and his wife walked to Whole Foods one evening in May. Police on the scene believed Duncan, a former Northeastern University deputy athletic director, matched the description of a suspect in a fatal Boston shooting. One officer drew his gun, and another asked for Duncan’s identification. Duncan was so fearful that he asked an officer to retrieve his wallet from his pocket, so that they did not think he was reaching for a gun.

MacDonald recently told the Globe that his decision to step down was based on family needs, though he also acknowledged the criticism and calls for reform from local elected officials.

“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.”

Longtime Harvard University Police Chief Francis D. “Bud” Riley said in June that he would leave, after nearly 50 years in law enforcement, by the end of the calendar year. Riley, 74, had recently commissioned a review of department policies following a Harvard Crimson report earlier this year that chronicled racist and sexist incidents within the force over the last three decades.

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In an interdepartmental message, Riley said his leave had been two years in the making and that he was proud of the department’s work, though he noted that much work remains for whoever fills his shoes.

“We must acknowledge the work that is needed on our part to strengthen the trust of our community, and specifically the trust of people of color in our community who have been marginalized,” he said. “That requires that, as a department, we take the time to be both introspective in reviewing our culture, training, and procedures, while also being open to the important conversations that we must have with our community as we pursue this goal.”

Similarly, former Revere police chief James R. Guido, 61, said his successor must work with the community in new ways. In an interview, Guido said his retirement — after 33 years on the force — had been planned in January, before the coronavirus pandemic swept the region and before protests over police abuse started to reach his city’s streets.

He also acknowledged that it’s poor timing, and that he is leaving his successor, Lieutenant David Callahan, difficult work.

“I kind of feel bad leaving in the middle of this,” he said. “There’s a lot going on for a new chief to absorb. It’s not a good time for a transition.”

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Both Guido and Callahan attended a recent meeting with Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins and other area chiefs to talk about new ways law enforcement agencies can incorporate community input.

“There absolutely needs to be positive change — well-thought-out, meaningful, constructive change. Not just change for the sake of change, but meaningful change,” Guido said. “We’re all listening, and we need to address the underlying problems that are causing these issues.”

It’s not unheard of for a police chief to retire after three or so years at the top job, but several former law enforcement officials and law enforcement experts said the latest wave of scrutiny and pressure for reform may be hastening the plans of many.

“I think we’re all seeing there’s change coming with policing. It’s not a bad thing to have this younger, fresher look,” said Brian Higgins, a former police chief and public safety director in New Jersey who now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

He said the calls from community advocates to defund police departments and reallocate resources to other programs could motivate chiefs who were already contemplating retirement to pull their papers. New trends in policing, with newer training protocols and new technology, could also convince older generations it’s time, he said.

Melissa Morabito, a criminal justice professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said many small city and suburban police chiefs are career police officers at the end of their careers who may not be used to the type of self-reflection that is demanded of them now.

“I do think it’s a passing of the baton, and saying, ‘If the community is ready for change, let’s bring in a leader ready for that change.' And that’s a good thing, a positive thing,” she said. “The job is different. People are asking more questions and hard questions.”

She added, “If you’re looking for a sea change, then maybe you need someone in with different ideas.”

In Newton, where community groups have been working with city officials to bring about reforms, residents said they want major structural changes in the department and they aim to get them with or without the old chief. The mayor has allocated $200,000 for the task force’s review.

“There’s an opportunity there for dialogue,” said Elisa Elena, of the grass-roots group Families Organizing for Racial Justice. “Now, we’re like, ‘All right, let’s figure out how to work together, so we can see what the problems are in this system and how it’s impacting the community.' That’s regardless of him being there or not.”

In Framingham, Trask participated in a Zoom webinar with public officials and community advocates a week before he stepped down. Mira Donaldson, president of Framingham High School’s Black Student Union, asked the chief to look into the possibility that some officers stationed at public schools were racially profiling Black students and enabling racism within the school system. The chief seemed receptive, she said.

“He said ‘Thank you for saying that,’ ‘I hear you,’ and ‘This will be addressed,‘” she said.

She was surprised, then, to learn a week later that he had decided to leave.

“Maybe he recognized this is a heavy topic right now,” she said.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.