Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Monday signed an ordinance creating a new, independent city watchdog that will have the authority to investigate officer misconduct.
The Office of Police Accountability and Transparency will monitor police and community relations, review police department policies, and encourage accountability and transparency within the police department. When Walsh drafted the proposal in November, it was considered the first major step in a series of reforms from a task force charged with reviewing police rules and guidelines.
“What we’re doing today is adding accountability,” said Walsh during the virtual signing ceremony.
Last month, the city council voted 12-1 to create the new entity.
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, including a lawyer who would serve as the executive director. The city has already launched the search for an executive director, according to the Walsh administration. The new entity would field and review complaints from the public about law enforcement officers, and would have subpoena power to investigate police affairs.
The office’s internal affairs oversight panel has the power to review all completed internal affairs cases, and will be able to review the policies and procedures of internal affairs, as well as engage with the community about their effect, according to Walsh’s office.
Monday’s development came months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May, which triggered an increased nationwide outrage and scrutiny of systemic abuses within law enforcement. Walsh referenced the Floyd slaying during Monday’s event.
Amid a broad discussion about racial inequality, Walsh appointed an 11-member police reform task force in June, naming former US attorney Wayne Budd as chairman. The mayor also declared racism to be a public health emergency in the city and pledged to reallocate $12 million of the police department’s overtime budget to social services.
The Office of Police Accountability and Transparency was considered to be among the most significant of the task force’s proposals. The office, which would be independent of the Boston Police Department and have its own, civilian staff, replaces a Civilian Ombudsman Oversight Panel that has little power to investigate misconduct cases on its own or to enforce department policies.
The council was already mulling a civilian review board for police when Walsh filed his proposal, and councilors voted on a modified version of the mayor’s measure.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, a consistent police reform candidate who is running for mayor, had proposed a council measure last year that called for establishing a civilian review board in the city. Campbell welcomed Monday’s signing of the ordinance that made the new entity a reality.
“Creating this office and a true system of civilian oversight is a win for our City and a major step towards eliminating racial disparities in our policing system which are in need of more transparency and accountability,” she said in a statement.
Another councilor and mayoral candidate, Michelle Wu, had similar sentiments, calling the signing of the ordinance an important step.
“Community trust and accountability must be at the foundation of public safety and health,” she said in a statement.
Tanisha M. Sullivan, president of the NAACP Boston Branch, also praised the new watchdog entity, saying it would help make “Boston a national leader on matters of police accountability, transparency, and public safety that values all life.”
“As recent events and reporting on BPD have exposed, our structures were long overdue for a review and redesign,” she said.
Monday’s signing came days after Walsh said he was vetoing a separate measure passed by the city council that would limit law enforcement’s use of chemical substances, such as tear gas, and projectiles like rubber bullets in crowd-control situations in Boston.
In a Dec. 31 letter to the council, Walsh said that initiative included “considerable questions as to the practicality and potential consequences of many of the proposals contained in the ordinance.” Walsh said the measure contains provisions that are inconsistent with state law establishing the police commissioner’s authority and that it fails to clearly define “law enforcement activities.” The mayor said he is supportive of provisions of a statewide police reform bill recently signed by Governor Charlie Baker that creates a framework for police crowd control practices.
Walsh indicated he will direct the city’s police commissioner to meet with the council to discuss how the new state regulations will be implemented.
Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a sponsor of the proposal, called Walsh’s decision to veto disappointing.
“This ordinance restricting chemical agents and kinetic impact projectiles, weaponry already banned in war, is both timely, necessary, and ethical and we will work to ensure it passes this year,” he said in a statement.
The council could override the mayor’s veto with a two-thirds vote.
As part of the discussions around dismantling structural racism, authorities have also recently pushed for making Boston’s public safety departments more diverse. The city council recently passed a Walsh proposal that would modify civil service rules to include a preference for Boston high school graduates — an effort to further diversify the Boston police force, which has become slightly more white in recent years, even as the city becomes less so. That home rule petition needs state legislative approval, and Walsh plans to file it with the Massachusetts Legislature later this month.
A Boston fire cadet program that proponents say will help diversify the city’s fire department was signed into law by Baker last week.
Gal Tziperman Lotan and Andrew Ryan of Globe staff contributed to this report.