Rachael Rollins wasn’t surprised to see hard evidence that the Boston Police Department has fundamental problems with equity within its ranks.
“I’ve been to one of their awards ceremonies,” said Rollins, Suffolk County’s district attorney on Sunday. “And it wasn’t lost on me who was getting awards and who was not.”
A bombshell Globe report by Andrew Ryan and Evan Allen looked at a decade of the department’s disciplinary data. It found that Black officers are overwhelmingly more likely to be disciplined than white officers. At the same time, they are much less likely to be cited for quality work.
The department’s response? Essentially, Commissioner Willie Gross said there’s nothing to see here.
“We don’t even look at color; that’s what’s disheartening to me,” Gross told the Globe. “I know who I am. I know where I came from in this department and how it used to be. I see the officers as blue.”
Gross, Boston’s first Black commissioner, is a great cop, and a man who indeed rose through the ranks in a far more toxic BPD. We’ve talked about the evolution he has seen, and been part of, and it’s been dramatic.
But the Globe’s reporting confirmed the anecdotal complaints of scores of Black officers over many years: that white officers get prizes, while they get the hammer. Those complaints have long been lodged by the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, better known as MAMLEO.
Those findings matter for so many reasons. It matters because a department that suffers from bias within cannot possibly be free of bias outside the station door. It matters as an issue of basic fairness. And it matters because it’s one more reason why a department that has long struggled with diversity will continue to, undermining its efforts to build trust with communities of color.
“The individuals who are not getting the awards and are being disciplined disproportionately are the same ones working to build bridges to communities,” Rollins said. “These disparities are why MAMLEO (and other minority police organizations) exist.”
To go to the specifics, Black officers, who make up barely a fifth of the department, have received 41 percent of the suspensions and roughly half the terminations handed out since 2010. Meanwhile, white officers got 73 percent of the citations and commendations between 2010 and 2018, while Black officers got just 16 percent.
Obviously, those numbers don’t add up to anything fair.
The problems within the department are many. They begin with a system of record-keeping that is so erratic and lackadaisical that it took months to collect and analyze its data. It’s as if they just don’t want to know.
Frankly, that’s underscored by Gross’ reaction. I understand that he has his own long history in the department. But this is about data, not personal experience. The first step in attacking systemic racism is to be willing to acknowledge its existence, and to look at and weigh the evidence.
The worst and least effective response is to make it about your own hurt feelings.
Rollins noted that her office is soon to undergo a top-to-bottom review of how it addresses race internally. That will be conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice, a well-regarded criminal justice research organization. Having a person of color at the helm doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to learn, and no work to do.
The tendency at the BPD has long been to insist that, whatever its issues, it’s nothing like other, deeply troubled big-city departments. That we’re not Chicago, or Detroit, or Ferguson, for that matter.
But comparing yourself to the worst examples doesn’t mean you’re doing well. It’s not justification for refusing to address problems that are hiding in plain sight.
Gross must commission an immediate outside review of the department’s disciplinary practices, and commit to meaningful reform. If he balks at that, Mayor Marty Walsh should force him to do it. “I see the officers as blue” is a slogan, not a policy.
Justice is supposed to be the BPD’s whole reason to exist. It must address the injustice within.