Over the past few months, there has been a national reckoning around issues of race and policing, with millions taking to the streets to protest the unjust treatment of Black and brown Americans by our broken criminal justice system. Now, for the first time in years, a majority of the public agrees with the need to reform policing.
As a Black man and the president of the Springfield City Council, I have been on the front lines of the fight for racial justice in my city. And, as the father of Black children, I have a deep understanding of the life-and-death stakes and the need to confront these issues head-on.
I’ve worked hard to bring reforms to Springfield, including speaking out against the reinstatement of officers under criminal investigation and calling for a citizen police commission. I have also tried to learn from what is working in other cities. One of the cities I have looked to is Holyoke under the leadership of Mayor Alex Morse. He is a committed ally in the fight for racial justice and has shown his commitment throughout his time in office. (Full disclosure: I have donated to Morse’s campaign for Congress, and Morse has contributed to my wife Denise Hurst’s campaign for state representative.)
Morse oversees the Holyoke Police Department. In the eight years since he took office, he’s implemented a strategy of community policing. Thanks in large part to Morse’s leadership, 40 percent of officers are people of color who grew up in the community and 90 percent have been trained in crisis intervention and deescalation, according to the city’s human resources department. During Morse’s time in office, no officer has had to fire a shot.
Morse has led the charge to fully repurpose all of the Holyoke Police Department’s military equipment and in June implemented #8CantWait policies, which places new restrictions on the use of force. This includes banning choke holds and strangleholds, banning shooting at moving vehicles, and requiring a more transparent process in handling use of force reporting. He has also put in place a Civilian Review Committee to review the city’s policing policies and provide feedback and recommendations and signed onto the “Mayor’s Pledge” issued by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance.
Police departments around the nation face big challenges, and the Holyoke Police Department is no exception. The city recently settled with a family over a 2014 incident in which a 12-year-old was injured in an encounter with Holyoke police. Federal qualified immunity statutes make the city party to such lawsuits, and a nondisclosure agreement prohibits the mayor from commenting publicly on the case.
Morse has also voiced his support for state and federal reforms to end qualified immunity. Moreover, he has supported federal bans on facial recognition technology and requirements that all officers wear body cameras and submit to implicit bias training. During a Black community town hall in June that I helped organize, Morse reiterated his commitment to combating racism in our country and ensuring that officers live up to their promise to protect and serve.
Morse’s record is clear. He was the only mayor in Massachusetts to support marijuana legalization — combating the harmful effects of prohibition on communities of color — and he declared Holyoke a sanctuary city in 2014. When President Trump threatened to strip federal funding from sanctuary cities, Morse stood fast in defense of his vision of an inclusive, welcoming community. All of these steps indicate Morse’s strong commitment to stronger, safer, more just communities.
When the George Floyd protests first broke out, Morse released a thoughtful meditation on race and policing in America. He wrote: “I will do everything in my power to align my words and actions with the cause of anti-racism, to wring as much bias out of myself as I can, to continue to keep my heart open to my fellow Americans.” He’s matched those words with real action in reforming the Holyoke Police Department and supporting important reforms at the federal level. That is the kind of commitment we need to finish the work of dismantling systemic racism.
Justin Hurst is president of the Springfield City Council.