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Boston is set to consider wide scale police reforms. But many of them have been pitched before

If history is a guide, change won’t come easy.

A task force is looking at ways to improve diversification and accountability within the Boston Police Department.
A task force is looking at ways to improve diversification and accountability within the Boston Police Department.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Over the last three decades, whenever a crisis of confidence in local law enforcement erupts, city officials turn to a task force for answers.

Each time, the task force recommended an array of Boston Police Department reforms, pitched as common sense policies that would address bias in policing and increase accountability within the force. And that’s often where it has fizzled out.

An independent office of accountability? The city doesn’t have one. A formal diversity and inclusion policy? Not yet. Even efforts to instill a zero-tolerance culture for lying have been fruitless. Each was pushed in the past — from the St. Clair Commission report in the early ’90s to a group formed in 2015 following unrest in Ferguson, Mo. — but failed to take hold in the face of pushback from police unions and entrenched political systems.

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Now, as Mayor Martin J. Walsh awaits final proposals from yet another task force — this one created following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police — the legacy of inaction demonstrates how often good intentions have been left by the wayside.

“I’m praying the city takes heed to the recommendations and that this is not representative of things we’re doing over and over again," said the Rev. Willie Bodrick II, associate pastor of Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury. Bodrick has pushed for reforms at the state and local levels.

He said he remained hopeful with the latest movement, adding, “this moment feels different … maybe because the stakes feel greater."


The Boston Police Reform Task Force, which Walsh commissioned in June, is scheduled to hold its last public comment session on Tuesday as it prepares to deliver a final report.

In an interview, Walsh said change is on the way but acknowledged it will take time: Some of the reforms may need to be negotiated with the unions, some may need to be drafted in local and state law. Walsh said he plans to make some changes on his own, by executive order.

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The mayor said, though, that he recognized the public’s impatience with another task force report and the tendency to move on “to the next story” after a crisis.

“There’s a different urgency today,” he said. “I’m living in the moment … people aren’t expecting task forces, false hopes, and no action."

But history has shown that change hasn’t been easy.

“There are so many missed opportunities,” said Charles Yancey, a former city councilor from Dorchester, who expressed frustration with the city’s inability to exact changes during his three decades in office, dating back to the early 1980s.

Yancey likened the recent reform efforts to those in the mid-90s, following the death of the Rev. Accelyne Williams, a retired 75-year-old pastor who had a heart attack after he was mistakenly apprehended by police in a botched drug raid. Many of the same reforms pitched then are on the table now.

“I think that Boston is in a very unique position to really set the tone for the rest of the country,” he said. “We have our problems, we’re certainly not perfect.”

Law enforcement analysts and policy makers say a constellation of stakeholders — from the unions who represent officers, to local and state legislators, to the mediators who serve on arbitration panels and civil service boards — will also have to commit to reforms. In the past, these groups have held sway, scuttling or watering down proposed reforms.

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Former Boston Police commissioner Edward Davis said that even the most well-intended mayor, police commissioner, and task force have their limitations. If the unions and state lawmakers — reliant on a system of arbitration proceedings and civil service rules — don’t embrace change, then reforms will only go so far, said Davis.

“No matter what kind of decisions you make … if you don’t have a system that is fair and focused on accountability to the community then you end up just spinning your wheels,” Davis said.

The police patrolmen’s union did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Several goals recently identified by the task force — diversification improvements, accountability measures, and the collection of use of force and internal affairs data — date to a landmark 1992 review of Boston police led by attorney James D. St. Clair.

That report, known as the St. Clair report, was commissioned in response to the notorious Charles Stuart case in 1989, in which a white man falsely alleged that his pregnant wife was shot and killed by a Black man. Police led a racially charged search for an assailant, though Stuart was eventually tied to his wife’s murder.

Among the report’s recommendations: the creation of a community appeals board that would independently probe the department’s internal affairs process. “It is no surprise that the overwhelming majority of community residents we spoke to have little confidence in the department’s ability or willingness to police itself,” the report’s authors wrote.

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All that came out of that recommendation — a decade later — was a board that can review some internal affairs cases but has no authority to conduct probes of its own.

The recent scrutiny of Boston police comes amid a social justice movement not seen in generations, as protesters have taken to streets across the country to decry unjustified police killings of unarmed Black and brown people, including Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

“Society is not asking anything of police that it’s not asking of other professions,” said the Rev. Ray Hammond, founding pastor of Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain, who has worked closely with the department over recent years to push for reform. “If they really want to be seen as public servants, and not people outside of the very law that they’re supposed to be enforcing, this is really to their advantage. And whatever the few say, and whatever the unions scream, I really hope that the average officer and sergeant and captain would understand that.”

The latest task force report focuses on specific areas: use of force and implicit bias training; a more comprehensive body camera program; a civilian review board to monitor police accountability; and increased diversity within the department.

Several were also highlighted in a 2015 task force report that was commissioned by Walsh following the controversial police killing a year earlier of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

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Then-members of the city’s Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, a little-known group that analyzes a small fraction of police internal affairs investigations, were asked to envision what an independent group with authority to probe misconduct would look like. The result? A blueprint akin to what’s being considered today: an independent office that would operate outside of police headquarters, with the power to subpoena witnesses and hear citizen complaints of misconduct.

Similarly, today’s task force wants to expand the police department’s camera program so that every officer wears one and to hold officers accountable for violating department policy on that program. Community advocates first pushed for cameras in 2016.

The politically powerful patrolmen’s union opposed both of these reform efforts.


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com or at 617-929-2043.