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Amid mounting criticism, Mayor Walsh says police department is working to build community’s trust

A protester in Boston was pinned by police in May following a march held to protest the death of George Floyd in Minnesota.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As investigations mount and criticism surrounding the conduct of Boston police sharpens, Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Monday defended the department while acknowledging it has a ways to go in building trust within the community.

“People should trust the police,” Walsh said during an appearance on WBUR’s “Radio Boston.” “And I know a lot of people don’t.”

Walsh’s comments followed Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins’s recent announcement that prosecutors would be reviewing separate instances of alleged police misconduct.

On Sunday, the Globe exposed the case of a troubled BPD officer who while off duty last year crashed his police cruiser into a car driven by a disabled grandmother. On Friday, online news outlet The Appeal published video clips showing officers using force and talking candidly and coarsely earlier this spring at demonstrations in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.

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“Officers were hurt that night and it got way out of control — there were lots of emotions,” Walsh said of the protests. “But we all have to do better.”

Monica Cannon-Grant, a local activist who helped organize multiple demonstrations earlier this year, criticized police Commissioner William Gross and said he has tolerated a culture of misconduct within the police force.

“I think the commissioner’s inability to hold [officers] accountable has made them comfortable engaging in being violent toward protesters,” she said.

Walsh said he recognized why people took to the streets in the spring in protest of systemic racism and police abuses laid bare by the police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis.

The mayor declared racism a public health threat in Boston in June and appointed an independent task force to recommend reforms, which include an independent watchdog office, an expanded body camera program, and improved bias and use-of-force training. Walsh accepted those proposals and has laid out a plan for implementing them. Critics say those changes can’t come fast enough and should have been on the city’s agenda long ago.

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Local officials roundly expressed shock over the weekend at the body camera footage, which shows violent skirmishes between police and protesters on the night of May 31.

In one, an officer can be seen bragging to another that he’d intentionally struck protesters with his car before quickly changing his story upon learning his colleague’s camera was recording the conversation. In another, an officer hands a colleague a $50 necktie — and references looting — and the second officer appears to accept the item.

In all, 53 protesters were arrested that night. Nine officers, as well as 18 protesters, were hospitalized with injuries, officials said.

“People were scared that night, there was lots of scared people including some officers that were scared,” Walsh said. “When you drive through a crowd and there are people throwing sticks and bricks and want to get to you. . . . In my time as mayor, and probably for the last 25 years, we haven’t seen a night like that.”

“This issue of police accountability in that particular case is really important for us,” he said. “That’s why there is an investigation.”

Following the release of the footage, Rollins and Gross opened investigations within their respective agencies. Gross placed a sergeant on administrative leave, but the department declined to release the sergeant’s name or details of the alleged misconduct.

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Though the department has been in possession of the video footage for months, it came to light only last week when local attorney Carl Williams provided it to The Appeal. Both the Globe and the ACLU had previously filed public records requests with the BPD for the footage, but the department denied those requests, citing ongoing investigations.

The exact nature of those investigations is unclear, and a police spokesman declined to say when the department first learned of the content of the videos.

According to department policy, “Bureau chiefs, supervisors, and Internal Affairs shall not randomly review [body camera] recordings/footage for disciplinary purposes.” Meanwhile, the agency is still compiling “after-action reports” that examine officer conduct.

Williams, an attorney representing four protesters who were arrested the night of the demonstration, said an assistant district attorney in Rollins’s office — whom he declined to name — sent him the body camera footage in mid-August as part of the discovery process.

“I didn’t even ask for it,” Williams told the Globe Monday. “I just got an e-mail out of the blue in a criminal case that I have. The person who gave it to me . . . they don’t know that they’re the source of all this. I think they would be stunned.”

Williams enlisted several Northeastern University law school students, and the group quickly discovered various instances of police engaging in what they considered violence toward peaceful protesters.

In the days following the protests, officials — including Walsh, Governor Charlie Baker, and Attorney General Maura Healey — had praised the department’s professionalism.

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But now many of those same officials expressed shock at the recent revelations.

“The body camera footage we’ve seen so far is disturbing and inexcusable,” said Healey in a statement. “We need a full investigation into what happened that night to hold accountable anyone who acted unlawfully.”

The inquiries come at a time when community leaders are growing increasingly weary of revelations of police misconduct.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell on Monday called the videos “deeply disturbing.” She was especially troubled upon hearing that Gross said he only recently learned about details of the video.

“It’s sad and tragic we have to wait for moments like this before we do something,” said Campbell, who is running against Walsh for mayor.

Campbell also urged Walsh to sign ordinances that the City Council passed last week that would codify restrictions on the police use of tactical weapons such as tear gas and that would create an independent Office of Police Accountability and Transparency.

Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a lead sponsor of the city’s recently proposed police reforms, said the footage confirms reports of excessive force that councilors had heard at the time of the protests. Police and the Walsh administration, Arroyo noted, had denied those reports.

“We knew there were real issues with the response” by police that night, Arroyo said. “There was a lot of property destruction, but there was also questions about whether excessive forced was used that day.”

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In a statement, Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said that 30 officers were hospitalized on the night in question — contradicting BPD officials, who said at the time that nine were taken to the hospital. Calderone said “hundreds” more had been treated for trauma or injuries sustained.

“We have a defense attorney who, after stitching together several contextually deficient video snippets, wants you to believe the real enemy in the city that night was the men and women of the BPD,” Calderone said.

Michelle Wu, a Boston City Councilor also running for mayor, called Monday for city leadership that will actively address the myriad issues within the department.

“Not only does this footage show the very behavior that protesters gathered to speak out against that day, but it was also withheld from public records requests,” Wu said. “We need leadership that stops deflecting responsibility and is proactive about pushing for the structural changes needed to build trust with our communities.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia and on Instagram @miltonvalencia617. Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.