The head of Boston’s largest police union pushed back Thursday against the mayor’s recently announced slate of police department reforms, saying the initiatives are nothing more than expensive — and unnecessary — layers of bureaucracy.
Larry Calderone, a veteran officer and president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said the reforms, especially the creation of an independent police oversight office, will not be a path to meaningful change.
Calderone said the reforms stem from unfair and unyielding criticism from city leaders, activists, and reporters who have shifted their sights to the department, focusing attention on everything from the effectiveness of the internal affairs department to the scattershot use of body-worn cameras.
“We’re insulted at the fact that you keep trying to find the bad officer that doesn’t exist,” Calderone said of these critics. “And you won’t rest and won’t stop until you get that one ‘gotcha’ moment. ... But how many millions of dollars are we going to spend? And how many people’s lives are we going to ruin?”
The politically powerful police union has been relatively mum this year, at least publicly, as a social justice movement swept the nation and heaped increasing scrutiny on systemic abuses within law enforcement. But in an interview with the Globe, Calderone issued his most extensive public comments since the reckoning over race and policing.
“We understand that there are problems in policing in other parts of the country, but not here in Boston,” he said.
After the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis this May sparked protests over police violence against Black and brown people, leaders in Massachusetts, as in many other places, hurried to work on police reform. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared racism a public health emergency and put together an 11-member task force, chaired by former US attorney Wayne Budd, to explore how the city could reimagine the nation’s first police department.
The group issued its final report on Tuesday, a 26-page document that called for wide-scale, institutional reforms to the department, such as enhanced policies around body cameras, use of force, and diversity in recruiting. Walsh endorsed the proposals fully, calling them “bold steps,” and saying he planned to implement them within 180 days.
“I will use every tool at my disposal to make this a reality,” Walsh said on Tuesday.
Walsh said he did not have an estimate for the cost of reforms, but suggested some of the funds could come from the department’s coffers. The task force was adamant about not increasing the department’s budget to fund these reforms.
It’s unclear how much say the union will have in shaping or halting the changes. Walsh acknowledged earlier this week that some of the initiatives will need City Council and legislative buy-in, while others may need to be addressed in union contracts.
Walsh, a former union leader whose first run for City Hall in 2013 was fueled by more than $3 million from organized labor, has long enjoyed police union support. After years of bitter contract disputes under the prior mayor, the patrolmen’s union settled amicably with Walsh’s administration in 2017. The proposed reforms come at a key time for relations between the two. The police union contracts expired June 30, and negotiations between the city and unions have been underway, privately, for months.
Calderone did not criticize Walsh directly Thursday, instead saying city leadership should acknowledge officers for the work they do.
“The reality is, you need this police department, and our elected officials should stand up and say so," Calderone said.
Jamarhl Crawford, a longtime Boston activist and member of the Police Reform Task Force, said Thursday that the union’s skepticism of the reforms underscores why they are desperately needed.
“I know why [police union officials] don’t want any adjustments to their job, because it’s been working real sweet for them,” Crawford said.
But, he said, Calderone and other officers have to respect the city’s policies, even if they don’t like them. “I didn’t take an oath to uphold the law and this and that. He did.”
Two police officers — Superintendent Dennis White, chief of staff for Commissioner William Gross; and Sergeant Eddy Chrispin, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers — served on the city reform task force. Calderone expressed disappointment that the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents about 1,600 rank-and-file officers, was not a large part of the discussions.
The union, Calderone said, is on board with some of the proposed measures and it does not want to be seen as a barrier to change. He said body cameras — which the union, under prior leadership, unsuccessfully sued the city over in 2016 — are a positive measure and have helped exonerate officers wrongly accused of excessive force.
Calderone expressed most of his concern about increased outside oversight of the department, namely the creation of an independent watchdog office with full investigative and subpoena powers.
“We already have an oversight in internal affairs here in the police department," Calderone said. “Not only do we have internal affairs, but we have an Anti-Corruption Unit. So there’s two levels of oversight, along with our various commanders, supervisors, deputy and full superintendents, leading all the way up to the commissioner.”
He also noted that the city has a Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, or CO-OP, which is empowered to review appeals of internal affairs investigations. As it exists now, however, this panel has little power: It can look into internal affairs investigations when residents ask them to, but does not have subpoena powers. The group hasn’t issued a report in three years, went a full year without meeting, and saw its membership dwindle to a single person late last year.
Through the first six months of this year, the panel reviewed three cases. Last year, the panel reviewed 42 cases, of those, six of the appeals cases were deemed to be handled fairly by internal affairs, the remainder were pending as of July.
Calderone said it’s City Hall’s job to make sure the panel is properly staffed.
“And that panel, once it’s staffed, should do their job, just like the rest of us are doing,” Calderone said.
A longtime police department observer, the Rev. Willie Bodrick II of Roxbury’s Historic Twelfth Baptist Church, on Thursday lauded the planned reforms.
“It’s obvious that we need more — we need more accountability, we need more transparency, we need more public access to our police departments,” he said. “For those who believe that this is not a problem, it means that they are not listening to diverse voices.”
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 617-929-2043.