Amid calls to address racism in policing, the Boston City Council is poised to vote on a trio of reform measures on Wednesday, including a plan to establish a first-of-its-kind, independent police watchdog agency in the city.
The proposal would create an Office of Police Accountability and Transparency to monitor police and community relations, review police department policies, and encourage accountability and transparency within the police department. When Mayor Martin J. Walsh drafted the proposal last month, it was considered the first major step in a series of reforms from a task force charged with reviewing police rules and guidelines.
The council was already mulling a civilian review board for police when Walsh filed his proposal, and councilors will vote Wednesday on a modified version of the mayor’s measure. Councilor Lydia Edwards said the current proposal is “the result of a collaboration between the administration and the council” to reconcile the two plans.
“This legislation will establish a system of true oversight and accountability in policing, that protects city residents and city police officers, to ensure that policing in Boston is done in the spirit of public safety and public interest,” Edwards wrote in a letter to the council.
The new oversight agency would provide research and administrative support to a nine-member civilian review board and an internal affairs oversight panel. It would be overseen by three commissioners and a lawyer, who would be the executive director, and would field complaints from the public about the police. The office would have subpoena power to investigate police affairs.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, a police reform advocate who is running for mayor, hailed the proposal.
“My priority has always been passing the strongest possible legislation and this ordinance, which combines the mayor’s legislation with the council’s, is exactly that,” she said in a statement. “Passing this will be a major step forward toward eliminating racial disparities in policing, establishing greater transparency and accountability all while ensuring justice in this system, both of which require systems of accountability.”
The slate of changes to Walsh’s proposal include broadening the review board’s authority to make recommendations to change policies, a process for removal of board and panel members, and a requirement that the mayor appoint three civilian review boards based on the recommendations of the City Council.
It is unclear whether Walsh will support the measure; his office indicated he will review the final language once it’s voted on by the council.
“Our goal is to achieve historic change in Boston by creating a national model for dismantling systemic racism in every facet of one’s life,” said Samantha Ormsby, a Walsh spokeswoman.
The mayor could veto the proposal. The council could override a veto with a two-thirds vote.
The council will also consider another police reform measure: a home rule petition that would allow the state’s civil service system to add a hiring preference for prospective officers who graduated from the city’s high schools. Walsh, who proposed the change, said it would help diversify the city’s force.
The council has revised the mayor’s proposal for a bolstered residency requirement for the department, showing preference for people who have resided in Boston for the previous three years instead of just one. The home rule petition would require legislative approval in the State House.
Another city councilor who is running for mayor, Michelle Wu, said the three proposals before the council “represent actionable progress to overhaul our approach to public safety and public health, which is long overdue.”
“I’m grateful for leadership at the local level to push policy change that centers the needs and voices of communities most impacted,” she said in a statement.
The council will also vote on a proposal that would restrict the use of chemical substances like tear gas and projectiles such as rubber bullets in crowd-control situations in Boston. It was filed by councilors in the aftermath of the violence that erupted on May 31, when police clashed with civilians after a peaceful march protesting police brutality and systemic racism.
Boston police used a spray similar to pepper spray, tear gas, and sponge rounds, which are made of foam rubber, during the turmoil that night.
Chemical crowd control agents and kinetic impact projectiles, said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, one of the proposal’s sponsors, “are indiscriminate weapons that have caused critical injury and deaths.”
“This ordinance creates necessary restrictions, accountability, and transparency that are currently not in place and should be required if the Boston Police Department seeks to continue their use,” he said in a statement.
That measure has drawn the opposition of Boston Police Commissioner William Gross, who in a letter to the council Tuesday said the latest version of the proposal is “highly inflexible and sets an impossibly high burden to operationalize in real time, making it ill-suited to restore peace during episodes of crowd violence.”
“The preamble alone fails to accurately reflect how crowd control is accomplished in Boston,” Gross wrote.
On the other two police matters before the council Wednesday, Boston police deferred comment to the mayor’s office.