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‘Newton is not a utopia.’ Task force to review policing

Demonstrators with signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement during a June protest near Newton's police headquarters on Washington Street.
Demonstrators with signs supporting the Black Lives Matter movement during a June protest near Newton's police headquarters on Washington Street.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller launched a sweeping review of the city’s police force this week, as a newly appointed task force began work to develop recommendations that she said will impact the department’s direction for years to come.

The 12-member advisory group met for the first time Wednesday, and comes after advocates have called for a broader discussion about the role of policing in Newton and the community’s relationship to its residents of color.

“Just two weeks ago in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I wrote of the pain of generations of people of color suffering racism and bias,” Fuller said in a statement. “I urged us to seize this moment to create lasting change and I immediately called for the formation of a Newton Police Reform Task Force.”

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Of the 104 people who applied, Fuller said she chose people who have diverse backgrounds, professions, and life experiences, and who are committed to bringing their “critical and independent” perspective to the advisory board.

Fuller will provide updates from the task force, including ways for the community to provide input.

“I know how vitally important voices of residents, businesspeople, and other members of the community are to successfully re-imagine policing in Newton,” the mayor said.

The task force is led by Sonja Spears, a former elected New Orleans judge who has taught at Tufts University and Harvard Law School.

A majority of the members have backgrounds in law enforcement or the legal system. Half are attorneys, including one of two police officers on the panel, according to biographies released by the city.

Some members have experience in social work and human rights, and others have deep roots in the community. One is a recent graduate of Newton North High School and member of Defund NPD, a group advocating that the police budget be directed to other uses.

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Karen Carroll Bennett, a member of the Newton Coalition of Black Residents, praised news of the task force. But she said the panel must discuss broader racial issues occurring in Newton, in addition to examining the police department itself.

The coalition formed more than a year ago, she said, as members shared the experiences of Black residents being stopped by Newton police while driving or walking down the street.

The problem gained widespread attention after a Black resident described his experience being stopped by Newton police on May 20 while he was walking with his wife to the supermarket. The officers were looking for a Dorchester homicide suspect, and one of them drew his gun.

“It is imperative to understand what is happening in the [police] department, what is happening in the city,” Carroll Bennett said. “If there are things that they find out through their analysis that are broken, they need to fix it.”

The Rev. Devlin Scott, lead pastor of NewCity Church, said in an e-mail that Fuller did well to represent “the various voices required for reform,” and is looking forward to their recommendations.

For the police department review, Scott said a starting point is first identifying the values that will be upheld.

“When we lead from values, we lead with convictions, morals, and standards,” Scott said.

The Newton Police Association, which represents rank-and-file officers, said in a statement through its attorney, Alan McDonald, that it will cooperate with any requests by the task force for information or other relevant assistance. McDonald also represents the Boston Newspaper Guild, the union for Boston Globe employees.

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In Newton, Black or African-American residents make up about 4 percent of the city’s population of roughly 89,000, according to the US Census. But they make up a larger percentage of the arrests, citations, and warnings made by Newton officers in recent years, according to data released by police.

Newton police conducted 218 arrests of Black people from 2015 through May of this year, or about 16 percent of the 1,370 arrests during that period.

Black people also received 114 citations, or about 7 percent, of the 1,616 citations issued by Newton police from 2016 through May 2020. They also received 2,657 warnings -- nearly 6 percent of the 46,146 warnings during that period, according to police data.

The police association, in the statement, said there are hundreds of thousands of non-residents who travel through or work in Newton each year, and they are among the pool covered in the departmental data.

The task force will likely set its own course. But one subject that local community groups have said is critical to investigate is the May 20 stop of Tim Duncan, a former deputy athletic director at Northeastern University, who said he feared officers would mistake his wallet for a weapon if he reached for his identification.

A Newton police sergeant frisked Duncan before retrieving the wallet from the man’s pocket, and Duncan was let go when police realized he wasn’t the suspect.

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Fuller, who apologized to Duncan after he spoke out, called the stop “a useful case study” for the task force, she said in a statement through a spokeswoman.

According to a subsequent internal investigation by Newton police, the officer who conducted the stop -- Sergeant Brian Tramontozzi -- did not file a police report on the incident, despite regulations requiring him to do so. Officer Brian Conley, who drew his weapon, did not fill out a required police use of force form, that review found.

Sergeant Kevin Rudd, who conducted the internal affairs review, later found that officers “were prudent and justified” in conducting the stop, and determined it was reasonable for Conley to draw his weapon. On June 19, almost a month after the incident, Tramontozzi filed a police report at the direction of superiors.

Carroll Bennett, with the Black residents’ coalition, called the May 20 stop a “stark and demonstrative incident” that must be reviewed by the task force.

“Newton is not a utopia,” she said. “We do not live in this wonderful woke bubble.”



John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.