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At a time of soul-searching on race, Newton turns to retired judge to lead policing review

Sonja M. Spears is the chairwoman of the Newton Police Reform Task Force, which is reviewing policing issues in the city in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.
Sonja M. Spears is the chairwoman of the Newton Police Reform Task Force, which is reviewing policing issues in the city in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Amid national soul-searching over racial justice, a retired judge who leads a Newton task force on local policing said she will center its work upon the experiences of people of color in the city.

Sonja M. Spears said the confluence of the coronavirus and national Black Lives Matter protests has exposed systemic racism, and she did not want to let the moment pass without helping to make things different.

“Being part of this, it was so important to me,” Spears said in a recent interview. “These last few months have brought so much pain, and in the midst of all the pain, it has revealed inequities in a way that has been impossible to ignore by people of good conscience. That presents an opportunity for change.”

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Mayor Ruthanne Fuller has said that recommendations from the 12-member volunteer Newton Police Reform Task Force, which she appointed last month, will impact the Newton Police Department for decades to come. She chose Spears as chairwoman “because of her deep experience in negotiation, mediation, and facilitation,” a city spokeswoman said.

Spears, 56, currently serves as the chief equity and inclusion officer for the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. The longtime attorney also teaches at Tufts University and Harvard Law School. She has served as a civil rights investigator for the MBTA, and was elected as a judge in New Orleans.

She also brings the perspective of someone who has faced the public scrutiny of a federal investigation that never resulted in charges. It’s an experience she has turned into a course at Tufts that examines the difference between justice and the law.

“When you are forced to look at somebody as a person, and have empathy, there are certain ways that you will refuse to treat them — to prevent you from being cruel,” Spears said. “It’s how I believe most people want to live in this world ... and honor the connection we all have with each other.”

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Spears is a Dorchester native and mother of two adult sons. A child of immigrants — her mother is from Jamaica, her father from Trinidad — she attended public elementary school in Newton before graduating from Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill.

She earned a degree in English at Tufts and spent a few years as a Boston Public Schools English teacher before switching careers and earning her law degree at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she later taught law students.

In 1998, she challenged an incumbent for a judgeship at the First City Court of New Orleans, presiding over evictions and small claims cases.

As a judge, she set up a legal aid program to provide assistance to those who didn’t have representation. She and her staff held seminars in local communities to explain the legal process.

She wanted to reverse a system of “unkindness and punitive measures” that had been put into place inside the court, she said. When Spears ran for a second, six-year term in 2004, she was reelected without opposition on the ballot.

But then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast the following year, and life in New Orleans, including for Spears and her family, was turned upside down. Spears split her time between Massachusetts and New Orleans and often worked remotely, which was a practice followed by many New Orleans judges after Katrina, she said.

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In 2010, Spears found herself under intense scrutiny: Federal prosecutors with the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana began a probe into her payroll records and looked into how much time Spears spent in Massachusetts, according to published reports. In 2012, the investigation ended with no charges filed.

A U.S. Attorney spokesman told the Globe the office could not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation. New Orleans media covered the investigation heavily, and at one point, a news crew traveled to Massachusetts and confronted her with questions.

Between the investigation and aggressive reporting by local media at the time, Spears said, the experience was tantamount to being wrongfully accused.

“A goal of cruelty was embedded in the entire process,” Spears said. “That was the most surprising, and the enormity of it was crushing.”

The ordeal led her to not seek a third term as judge, and she retired from the bench in 2010.

“The whole thing was tainted by bias. They had reached a conclusion in their minds,” she said. “And if the probe didn’t end in charges, part of the motivation was making sure I didn’t escape unscathed.”

She used her experience during the federal probe to create a course she teaches for Tufts undergraduates called “Accused: The Gap between Law and Justice.” She’s discussed her experience and the class in a 2017 TEDx lecture.

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In her Globe interview, she said identity itself — such as race or sexual orientation — becomes an accusation, and preconceived notions “take precedence [over] looking at the person as a whole human being.”

“There is a connection that we all have that is overlooked when you are reduced to race, or gender, or what you have created as ‘criminal,’” she said. “And too often, Black and brown people are reduced to criminal.”

At Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Spears is a member of the senior leadership team and has implemented efforts on racial justice and equity in areas that include hiring, staff training and orientation, and health care, said Barry Bock, the chief executive officer.

“She really helps drive the agenda for us around health disparities, and obviously, this has taken on an even greater sense of urgency since the murder of George Floyd,” Bock said.

Spears said the Newton task force will look at the strengths and challenges facing the police department, and will hear perspectives from the community — particularly people of color — and department members. It also will look closely at other areas, including accountability and oversight within the police.

The task force will present its recommendations to the mayor in February, Spears said.

“A positive outcome is at the end, we will be able to provide some sort of model for positive change going forward,” Spears said. “There is no reason why this task force can’t be a model for other communities.”

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Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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