Mayor Martin J. Walsh embraced a slate of proposed Boston police reforms on Tuesday, vowing to push through sweeping recommendations of a task force that spent almost four months examining the operations and culture of the nation’s oldest police department.
The city will move to create an independent police watchdog office with full investigative and subpoena powers, expand the police department’s body-worn camera program, and enhance the department’s use-of-force policies, Walsh announced.
The department will also create a new diversity and inclusion unit, and officials will seek to amend civil service rules to allow for a hiring preference for Boston high school graduates, a move Walsh said would open a recruitment pipeline to a diverse swath of residents. The racial makeup of the department has become more white in recent years, and doesn’t resemble the city’s population.
From how the department collects data, to how officers interact with the public, the adoption of the task force recommendations represents a major recalibration of department practices and policies.
“These are bold steps,” Walsh said. “I accept and endorse each of these principles."
He also set a 180-day timeline in which to implement the reforms, several of which will require negotiations with the City Council, police unions, and in the case of civil service changes, approval of the Legislature.
“I will use every tool at my disposal to make this a reality," he said.
Joining Walsh, police Commissioner William Gross said he, too, embraces the changes.
“The discussions about systemic racism, injustices, inequality — these discussions have to be had," Gross said. "As law enforcement we serve the people, it’s not the other way around.”
Several of the proposed reforms may require buy-in from police unions as well as an influx of money, namely to the new independent oversight office. Asked Tuesday about the cost, Walsh said that he didn’t have an estimate, but that at least some of the money will come from the police department’s existing budget.
Task force member Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, emphasized that members heard calls from protesters over the summer not to increase the police department’s budget to pay for reforms, especially not at the expense of other city services. Some protesters have argued that the department is broken beyond repair and advocated for reallocating significant chunks of its budget to social services, schools, and community groups.
“Our recommendation is that the BPD does look within for opportunities to restructure or reorganize itself to meet the needs there,” Sullivan said. “I want to make sure that folks know that we, as a task force, have heard from our community about the concerns about the police department budget.”
Walsh appointed the 11-member task force in June, naming former US attorney Wayne Budd as chairman. He did so while declaring racism a public health emergency in the city and pledging to reallocate $12 million of the police department’s overtime budget to social services.
The move followed the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and coincided with increased nationwide outrage and scrutiny of systemic abuses within law enforcement.
Protesters here and across the country took to the streets to demand changes to the criminal justice system. In response, Massachusetts lawmakers went to work on a broad policing bill that would require officers to be certified, among many other enhanced accountability measures. The bill has not yet passed.
The city task force issued a draft report last month, and Walsh released the group’s completed report Tuesday. The 26-page document outlined ways to create within the department “a culture that prioritizes diversity, equity, and community engagement."
The report focused on five key areas: body camera use, the power of the city’s existing oversight boards, the department’s use-of-force policies, implicit bias training, and improving transparency and accountability within the department. The task force called for the creation of an Office of Policing Accountability and Transparency, a city agency with subpoena power independent of the police department, to review all allegations of police misconduct and use of force.
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.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who has launched a campaign for mayor, described the proposed reforms as “a step in the right direction" on Tuesday. But she said the Walsh administration should “go much further” to ensure that all the city’s public safety agencies reflect the demographics of the people they serve.
Campbell also took issue with the structure of the two independent boards designed to add oversight to police. For one of the boards, the task force proposal would give the mayor power to appoint members with input from police unions but not the City Council, Campbell noted.
Earlier this year, Campbell proposed a single oversight board with appointments split between the mayor and the City Council to help keep the administration in check.
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is also running for mayor, said City Hall history shows that promising new initiatives sometimes never get the needed resources to make a difference.
“The success and effectiveness of how this really touches people’s lives will lie in the details of implementation,” Wu said. “How much of a budget will this [police accountability office] really have? How empowered will staff members actually be to push when it becomes politically tricky?”
The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the largest union representing Boston officers, has stayed quiet — at least publicly — throughout the process, instead using social media to highlight officers' day-to-day work. A spokesman declined to comment Tuesday, saying union leaders were reviewing the report.
Changing the culture of the department may prove challenging. A series of recent Globe reports has highlighted systemic issues within the ranks. For example, police supervisors rarely take action against problem officers and racial bias is persistent — Black officers are disciplined at a far higher rate than white officers, and receive a smaller share of awards. A review of city records shows that police payroll has jumped dramatically in the past decade, largely in part to overtime, and several of the highest compensated officers have checkered pasts.
Amid the revelations, local leaders and advocates have chafed at the pace of police reform in the city, noting that politicians have previously pledged similar changes, to no avail.
Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, remained skeptical Tuesday.
“It remains to be seen whether the policies will be implemented over likely objections from police unions, and how much it will inflate the police department’s already enormous budget," Rose said. "Policymakers' work has only just begun.”
It’s unclear how much support for reform exists within the department’s ranks.
“People are scared of the unknown, people are scared of change,” said Boston police Sergeant Eddy Chrispin, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and a member of the task force. “I tell all police officers, change is going to happen. It’s important that we have a seat at the table, so at least we can mediate some of the changes.”