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Mayor’s task force issues sweeping Boston police reform recommendations

Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and Mayor Marty Walsh at a coronavirus briefing outside City Hall in July.
Boston Police Commissioner William Gross and Mayor Marty Walsh at a coronavirus briefing outside City Hall in July.Nicolaus Czarnecki

A task force appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh recommended on Thursday a series of sweeping reforms to the Boston Police Department, changes that include holding officers more accountable for using excessive force and the creation of an independent review board with subpoena powers.

The proposals outlined in the 17-page draft report issued to Walsh represent a rethinking of police operations in Boston and the ways in which officers interact with the community, and come amid increasing scrutiny of the nation’s oldest police department.

The driving force behind the recommendations was the need for a “a culture that prioritizes diversity, equity, and community engagement," the report said.

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“Bringing about meaningful culture change in an institution requires that the institution itself change,” the report noted. “To bring about meaningful reform to the BPD . . . there is more work to be done.”

The group plans to hold public comment sessions over the next two weeks, before delivering a final report. A public hearing is slated for Sept. 22. Walsh said Thursday that he would not act until the task force completes its work.

In its draft report, the task force called for the department to increase transparency and accountability within its fledgling police body camera program, to diversify its ranks, and to expand training for implicit bias among officers. The task force also suggested the city adapt better data and record-keeping practices “that maximize accountability, transparency and public access.”

If implemented, the recommendations could help to bridge cultural divides between police and community members — as long as the proposals are implemented with continued community input, advocates said.

“There has to be some work done to really shift the culture of the police. But I am thankful for the first steps that we are seeing,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, senior pastor-elect of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. “These are good first steps in correcting actions and behavior. But the most important thing we can do is shifting culture.”

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Walsh commissioned the task force in June, part of the mayor’s declaration that racism in Boston was a public health threat.

The move followed a series of protests around the city and the nation that brought intense attention to police abuses and killings of unarmed Black and brown people, including the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The 11-member task force, chaired by former US attorney Wayne Budd, ultimately suggested reforms in four key areas: body camera use; the power of the city’s existing oversight boards; use of force policies; and implicit bias training.

The report released Thursday implored the city to view the recommendations as “the floor rather than the ceiling on police reform.”

“It is not enough that the mayor approve the task force’s recommendations and that the BPD pledge to implement them,” the report stated. “The BPD and/or the city must also measure the BPD’s progress and enforce consequences where results are not achieved.”

Several of the recommendations – including the proposed independent accountability office – have been suggested before in Boston. Each stalled, in part because of strong opposition from the politically powerful police union. But Walsh has signaled a renewed effort to embrace change, amid a nationwide social justice movement.

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“The time for urgent change is now,” Walsh said Thursday in a statement. “These initial recommendations will guide how we reform Boston’s police force, and strengthen our commitment to community policing.”

The report also called on the police department to conduct its own soul-searching analysis of what the department does best and where resources can be shifted to other city agencies. That recommendation appears to be in direct response to community demands to reallocate police resources toward more social-service-oriented programming, such as job training and mental health support systems, so that people can be directed away from the criminal justice system.

The report stopped short of recommending the “defunding” of the police department, or taking resources away, though it called for officials to meet the recommendations without devoting more in police funding.

Like Walsh, Police Commissioner William Gross similarly said Thursday that he is open to the recommendations.

“At the Boston Police Department, our mission is to keep our communities safe, provide opportunities for those who need it, and build trust throughout our neighborhoods,” Gross said.

The most sweeping recommendation is the creation of a new, independent Office of Policing Accountability and Transparency. The agency would be empowered to review all allegations of police misconduct and use of force, with the ability to subpoena witnesses.

The office, which would be housed outside police headquarters and have its own, civilian staff, would replace a Civilian Ombudsman Oversight Panel that has little power to investigate misconduct cases on its own or to enforce department policies.

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A separate task force Walsh appointed in 2015, commissioned after the protests over police abuses in Ferguson, Mo. had suggested similar steps, which were never implemented. Most recently, city councilors moved forward with their own proposed ordinance to create an independent review board. Walsh said his office, with the task force report in hand, will review the council’s proposal.

Community advocates have lamented that the department has failed to reform itself. The Globe has reported that the department’s ranks have grown whiter as Boston grows more diverse, and that the department almost never believes citizens who report misconduct or violence by police officers, and when it does, the officers face little discipline.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who drafted the council’s proposal for a review board, said the new report recognized the opportunity for change.

“It’s up to all of us to pass the bold, politically challenging reforms we need to make all Boston residents feel that their police force is working to keep them safe," she said, "and to be unafraid to have the tough conversations about why Black and Brown residents often do not feel protected by police.”

City Councilor Michelle Wu, who has advocated for similar reforms including the demilitarization of the department, added, “The recommendations from the task force are specific, actionable, and impactful. The city should use its full power to actualize these steps.”

The task force also recommended increasing transparency and accountability through the department’s body-worn camera program, which has had mixed reactions within the department since it was first implemented in a pilot study in 2017. Currently, only operations-level officers are required to wear body cameras, and not on any overtime shifts. But the task force suggested implementing them department-wide and keeping them on nearly all the time.

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The task force also called for clear procedures for discipline for officers who violate the camera policy; such discipline should affect officer promotions and salary increases.

Segun Idowu, one of the founders of a Boston Police Body Cameras Action Team that first advocated for cameras four years ago, welcomed the proposals.

“The transparency is the first part, the accountability is the most important part," he said. “That’s the linchpin, that’s the most important recommendation . . . holding people accountable for what they do.”

He added, “This is encouraging, but they’re only recommendations. It’s the implementation that matters.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan, Daniel McDonald, and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.




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