Responding to a broad push for meaningful police reform, the Boston City Council on Wednesday passed a trio of law enforcement proposals including a measure that would establish a first-of-its-kind, independent city watchdog with the authority to probe officer misconduct.
The council voted 12-1 to 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.
However, the version passed by the council Wednesday included a raft of changes to Walsh’s original plan. At a Wednesday news conference, Walsh said he would review and act on the three police-related proposals in coming days, but did not say whether he would sign or veto them. The council can override a veto with a two-thirds vote.
In a Wednesday statement, Walsh said the city is stronger because of the work of the police reform task force, adding that “we look forward to reviewing the language passed by the City Council today to ensure it aligns as closely as possible to their recommendations and the original ordinance we put forward this fall.”
Under the measure passed Wednesday, the power to discipline officers would remain with the commissioner. But if the commissioner doesn’t follow the recommendations of a civilian review board, the official would have to explain that decision, according to councilors.
“This legislation will establish a system of true oversight and accountability and policing that is also transparent and accessible by the people of Boston,” Councilor Lydia Edwards said during the meeting, which was conducted via Zoom.
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 serve as the executive director. The new entity would field and review complaints from the public about the police, and would have subpoena power to investigate police affairs.
Councilor Andrea Campbell called the council’s passage of the legislation a win for the city and a major step toward eliminating racial disparity in policing. She referenced two Black Americans who died at the hands of police -- George Floyd and Breonna Taylor -- saying those deaths were devastating examples of why police accountability is needed.
“This is not about individual officers; this is about transforming a system that from its inception has been biased and has disproportionately harmed Black and brown people in this county,” she said.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said the initiative will foster an understanding “that there is accountability and that there are other eyes on the decisions that are made at BPD.”
Councilor Frank Baker was the lone vote against the measure.
The two other police measures passed by the council would modify civil service rules to include a preference for Boston high school graduates -- an effort to further diversify the Boston police force -- and restrict the use of crowd-control tactics like tear gas and rubber bullets.
Walsh proposed the change to the state’s civil service system that governs hiring changes to address concerns about a lack of diversity in the police department. The Globe reported earlier this year that the city’s force has become slightly more white as the city’s population has become less so in recent years.
The civil service home rule petition, which passed unanimously on Wednesday, still needs state legislative approval.
The council also approved a proposal that would limit the use of chemical substances, such as tear gas and projectiles like rubber bullets in crowd-control situations in Boston. That ordinance, which was filed by councilors in the aftermath of the violence that erupted in the heart of the city on May 31, was passed over the objection of Boston’s top police officer. Police commissioner William Gross said in a Tuesday letter to the council that the legislation was “ill-suited to restore peace during episodes of crowd violence.”
That ordinance passed by a margin of 8 to 5.
One supporter of the proposal, Councilor Liz Breadon, cited growing up in Northern Ireland, saying that British security forces would use plastic bullets on people during the Troubles. She indicated the issue was personal for her.
“If it was up to me, I would ban these weapons,” she said.
Some councilors who voted against the measure pointed to Gross’ concerns. Councilor Michael Flaherty worried that the initiative was inflexible and difficult for police to follow as events unfold quickly in real time.
“I have concerns about tying the hands of our officers during a difficult situation,” said Flaherty, who voted against it.
The councilors’ initiative would generally only permit the use of impact projectiles or chemical agents for crowd control in situations where an on-scene supervisor with the rank of deputy superintendent or higher determines such tactics are needed in response to violence or destruction, gives at least two warnings over a loudspeaker for the crowd to disperse, and specifies what will happen if the crowd fails to do so.
On May 31, police clashed with civilians after a peaceful march protesting police brutality and systemic racism. Ugly scenes downtown and in the Back Bay unfolded as more than two dozen people were sent to the hospital and stores were smashed and sacked. 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.