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Walsh wants to move quickly on Boston police reforms, but it could take a while

Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke at a press conference flanked by members of the Boston Police Reform Task Force as he announced a plan for a slate of reforms to the Boston Police Department.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke at a press conference flanked by members of the Boston Police Reform Task Force as he announced a plan for a slate of reforms to the Boston Police Department.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has vowed to do whatever he can to carry out the recommendations of his Boston Police Reform Task Force, and already has taken some initial steps.

But if he expects to pull off what would be one of the most ambitious overhauls ever of the nation’s oldest police force, he’s going to need a lot of help — and executing all the changes the task force has called for could take years.

Just take the proposal to give more opportunities to Boston high school graduates to become police officers, an effort to boost diversity. The mayor can’t do it alone. First, the City Council must approve a home rule petition to ask the state Legislature to change civil service laws to give preference to these candidates. Then, the Legislature must approve the request. If that doesn’t happen by the end of this year, a realistic possibility, then the process starts all over again in 2021.

Walsh may face opposition to key proposals from the politically powerful police officers' union, which is in the midst of negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the administration.

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“That’s always a stumbling block,” said former city councilor Josh Zakim, who is familiar with the tedious process of enacting legislation, locally and at the State House.

“There needs to be a give and take,” he added, “but the bottom line is that, with the mayor and the City Council on the same page, and pushing for this, I do think there’s a real opportunity for change.”

Walsh set a 180-day timeline in which to implement the reforms, promising earlier this month, “I will use every tool at my disposal to make this a reality.”

But even as the mayor embraced the task force report, and city councilors signaled their support, the administration has to accept the reality that past attempts to improve public safety, including a similar proposed police watchdog office, have fizzled out or died at the State House. A home rule petition the city filed with the state Legislature last year to boost diversity within the fire department, for instance, still hasn’t gone anywhere.

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This pandemic-plagued year could pose special challenges to meaningful reforms: In an exceptionally tight budget year, the city would need to find millions to pay for initiatives such as expanded police body-worn cameras and civilian oversight.

“What comes to mind initially for me … is the process,” said Pam Kocher, head of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city government watchdog that is reviewing the task force recommendations and their potential impacts.

“The next step is implementation, and we’ll see how the city approaches that," Kocher said. "We’ll see how the public safety unions respond to that. Implementation has been a challenge at times.”

Walsh has committed to all of the task force’s recommendations, which include the creation of an independent watchdog office with full investigative and subpoena power; the expansion of a body-worn camera program; better defined use-of-force policies; and new initiatives to improve the culture and diversity of the department.

“Boston is committed to systemic change to ensure the Boston Police Department promotes equity and justice for all Boston residents, and we are moving swiftly to enact the Boston Police Reform Task Force’s recommendations,” Walsh said in a statement last Tuesday, in proposing the home rule petition to change civil service laws.

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But just hours before Walsh’s statement, Larry Calderone, head of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, balked at the reforms during an appearance on a GBH radio program. Calderone complained that the union’s input was largely left out of the task force review, which spanned three months and included a dozen public meetings.

“They want to create a whole new bureaucracy, they want to spend millions of taxpayer dollars doing it,” said Calderone, whose membership has doled out tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations to city and state officials. The union could use the contract negotiation process to stall the reforms, or reject them altogether.

Calderone lashed out at what he called disrespect toward police officers, including at recent protests and rallies for police reforms.

“We’re not getting the support from the media, we’re not getting it from our elected officials,” he said.

The task force’s recommendations, laid out in a 26-page report last week, would represent one of the largest overhauls ever for the Boston Police Department. Walsh commissioned the task force in June, in response to protests along the city’s streets in what has become a national reckoning over police misconduct, including the unjustified killings of unarmed Black and brown people.

In their report last week, the task force members said their recommendations should be looked at as “the floor rather than the ceiling on police reform.”

Several of the recommendations have been proposed before, by previous task forces and advisory groups dating back decades. Four years ago, an advisory group commissioned by Walsh recommended its own version of an independent watchdog office, with startup estimates at $3 million, but the measure went nowhere amid opposition from the police union.

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The exact shape and nature of the oversight office may face challenges not only from the union, but also city councilors. Andrea Campbell, one of two councilors who has announced she’s running for mayor next year, has proposed her own model of an independent watchdog office in the form of an ordinance, which would give the council direct involvement in designing the makeup of the office.

The task force recommendation on body-worn cameras would expand on the existing policy, requiring all uniformed officers to wear them and to keep them on at all times during work hours. The task force also recommended that all camera footage be kept for a minimum of six months, and for at least three years when the conduct of the officer is questioned.

The group also called for better tracking of police misconduct, and to increase diversity efforts in hiring. About 65 percent of the department’s sworn officers are white, compared to about 52 percent of the city’s population, according to police data. About 21 percent of the officers are Black; 11 percent Hispanic; and 2 percent Asian.

While any changes to state laws — such as changes to civil service laws to amend the recruiting process — require a vote of the Legislature, Walsh has signaled that he would also take action under his own purview — by executive order — on other proposed changes. Last week, he directed the Boston Police Department to create its first Diversity & Inclusion Unit within the department.

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But Walsh’s reliance on executive orders to make changes could put him at odds with councilors who want more permanent measures that can’t be reversed by a future mayor, setting up a power struggle over ownership of the policy.

City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who chairs the council’s government operations committee that reviews proposed legislation, said councilors already have indicated they want to see reforms enacted by law so they are cemented in city policy. She pointed out the past failed attempts to bring change, and said the council would flex its approval authority, including over the police officers' bargaining agreement.

“We need an ordinance, we need law. This warrants a permanent, clear standard that is vetted by both sides, the executive branch and the legislative branch, to demonstrate how we are truly committed to how we police people,” she said.

“I’m hoping we see this for the rare opportunity it is,” she added. “We’re in a civil rights movement.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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