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EDITORIAL

Boston police contracts remain unfinished business

Mayor Walsh’s police commissioner debacle highlights the need to keep promises made to this community for an accountable, responsive police force.

Newly appointed Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White was placed on leave after accusations of domestic violence surfaced as a result of inquiries by the Globe
Newly appointed Boston Police Commissioner Dennis White was placed on leave after accusations of domestic violence surfaced as a result of inquiries by the GlobeJim Davis/Globe Staff

As Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston begins packing his bags for Washington, D.C., there’s one critically important bit of as yet unfinished business — the next police union contracts.

After all, the nation’s soon-to-be secretary of labor made a lot of promises to the city he’ll leave behind — promises about police accountability, transparency, civilian oversight, and increasing diversity on the force.

Many of those police reforms and pledges of accountability for officer misconduct won’t be worth the paper they’re printed on unless backed up in the next union contracts.

Look no further than the recent debacle over the appointment of Police Commissioner Dennis White, accused of domestic violence against his now ex-wife in 1999 — an accusation that didn’t surface publicly until two days after his appointment, and only after the Globe newsroom’s inquiries led to him being placed on leave. In fact, White was the subject of three internal affairs cases, one of which coincided with the timing of the domestic violence accusations. That he could be appointed to the highest post in the force despite that record and with no public disclosure before the fact speaks to the culture of impunity and secrecy that pervades the Boston police.

Fixing that culture starts with fixing the union contracts that have for too long protected officers who lie, cheat, or abuse civilians, while limiting the ability of leaders to enforce discipline. Contracts with all four police unions expired at the end of last June. “The parties are making good-faith efforts to move negotiations forward,” a city official said.

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Members of the Boston City Council have repeatedly pressed the Walsh administration for information on contract negotiations, at least for the administration’s policy priorities — all to no avail.

And with at least three city councilors already running for mayor and a fourth slated to assume the job of acting mayor, the issue of timing has become critical. It’s easy to be “for” police reform in the abstract, but harder when it comes with a real price tag, as contracts do.

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Walsh, of course, could do his rabbit-out-of-the-hat trick — as he did with that recent memorandum of understanding with the Boston Teachers Union on school reopening. But time for quick fixes is growing short. Taking this into the heat of the campaign season would be unfortunate.

Even worse, of course, would be if the police unions try to stall negotiations, seeing advantage in an impasse so protracted it ends up before the state’s Joint Labor Management Committee. That may have worked in 2013, when police won a 25.4 percent pay hike (over six years) via arbitration. But the City Council that rubber-stamped that deal was a far different group from today’s council, and this sure isn’t 2013.

At minimum, the city’s next police contracts must follow through on promises made when Walsh signed on to the recommendations of his own Police Reform Task Force, a group that included the now-embattled White.

The task force’s list of action items that should be in the contract included:

▪ The use of body-worn cameras at all times, by all police units, and making the camera footage available to those who were recorded or, in the event of death, their survivors.

▪ Creating a list of “zero-tolerance offenses for immediate termination and a problem-officer list that is publicly available.”

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▪ Requiring any police officer involved in a use-of-force incident where a civilian is killed to submit to a psychological exam and a drug/alcohol test.

Just last month, Walsh signed an ordinance creating an independent Office of Police Accountability and Transparency — with subpoena power — that includes a civilian review board and an internal affairs oversight panel. The measure was a hybrid of ideas from both the task force and the City Council.

But real reform also means getting a handle on the perpetual problem of police overtime — for some sound fiscal reasons, but also to further the cause of racial justice by diverting some of those resources to other community needs — say, increased use of mental health counselors to accompany police.

A draft report, prepared for the council by its Ways and Means Committee chair, Kenzie Bok, noted that any new contract “should seek to convert . . . routine uses of overtime into regular hours, thereby reserving overtime for genuinely unpredictable aspects of public safety.”

The recent federal indictment of nine Boston police officers in an overtime fraud scheme involving BPD’s evidence warehouse speaks for the pressing need for just that kind of change.

The council is also looking to advance the notion that “a significant portion of the work currently being done by police would be better addressed by unarmed civilians,” leaving police to do “true police work.”

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But such common-sense proposals don’t just happen; they need to be negotiated.

And there is the pressing need to free the BPD from the pernicious consequences of individual officer appeals to private arbitration. Time and again, bad cops — cops who have been dismissed by the force, who have cost the city money for the damage they’ve done — are ordered back into service by arbitrators.

That has to change.

“What we’re trying to do is demystify the contract process, which is so central to the really fundamental issues of police reform, and yet so opaque,“ Bok said in an interview.

The document put together by Bok and her colleagues, still a work in progress, presents a reasonable set of expectations for what can — and should — be accomplished in the next police contract.

It should also be a sobering reminder to police union leaders that the expectations raised this summer for a police force that is truly accountable to the community it serves remain as high as ever, even through this winter of transition in a city that thrives on change.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.