“Start spraying the f---ers,” says one Boston police officer, after protests last spring took a violent turn, leading to the indiscriminate use of pepper spray. A woman with hands raised is knocked down by a police officer with a baton. Another officer brags that he hit protesters with his car. After being told that a body camera recorded his remarks, he changes his account and says he didn’t really hit anyone.
The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association dismissed these troubling images — first revealed by the news site The Appeal — as “contextually deficient video snippets.” Imagine if, for once, union leadership called out such conduct for what it is: bad policing. Instead, the first impulse is to defend that conduct by arguing that officers that night sustained trauma and injuries “after being pelted with rocks, bottles, batteries, bricks, bleach, urine, and kerosene.” However, assaults of that nature are not evident in these specific clips. And besides, aren’t police supposed to be trained to respond in a targeted and disciplined manner to such incitement?
These videos should reignite the passion for real police reform in Massachusetts. The clips come from about 70 hours of body camera footage obtained by the National Lawyers Guild, which represents four protesters charged with crimes related to protests that began on the night of May 31 and stretched into the next morning. The ACLU is also trying to get access to the footage. If there’s nothing to hide, why not make it all accessible to everyone? Instead, the BPPA complains about “snippets.”
In the case of the officer who bragged about hitting protesters, the union later tweeted out a video purporting to show what it said was the officer driving slowly down a street as protestors surged around his car. Yet his boast, even if untrue, coupled with the joyful exercise of brute power by other officers, should be denounced. Instead, the BPPA denounced the defense lawyer who gained access to the videos and “and wants you to believe the real enemy in the city that night were the men and women of the BPD.”
I don’t condone the looting or burning of police vehicles that occurred that night, but these protests shouldn’t be cast in terms of enemy warfare. They grew out of a national movement aimed at raising awareness about police tactics, following the police killing of George Floyd, in Minneapolis, on May 25. Now these Boston videos raise legitimate questions about tactics here. In fact, if anyone should be reviewing the videos and processing the BPPA response to it, it’s Governor Charlie Baker, who sent reform legislation that was challenged by police unions back to lawmakers. When it comes to police reform, you pick a side — the people or the police. Police unions have made that the choice, with their us-against-them attitude.
Like other police union representatives, BPPA leaders insist they support reform, even as they work to undercut reform efforts. “Our union is being vilified. We are not the obstacles or obstructionists we are being portrayed as, “ BPPA president Larry Calderone recently told Globe columnist Kevin Cullen.
If only the union would back that up with proof. Instead, the BPPA response is all about complaining they were frozen out of reform conversations. Meanwhile, they shut down the conversation by refusing to acknowledge the obvious, such as the conduct on these videos. It has prompted two reviews, one by the Boston Police Department and one by Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
More than that is needed. Beyond the investigations into the conduct of specific officers, the videos show the genuine need for outside review. Some fully independent entity needs to look at events like this, not just to assign blame in a specific case, but to ask: How do we learn from this, so it doesn’t happen again?
When the BPPA is ready to embrace the answer to that question, it’s ready for reform.