For years, Boston police officers and their unions have been a political force in city elections, a stand-alone constituency whose endorsements were a coveted commodity — and often came with tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions.
But this year, at the onset of what will be a historic race for mayor of Boston, candidates and police unions could be treading more lightly as they decide whether to form political alliances, setting up a potentially polarizing environment amid movements to reform police systems.
Candidates who have spearheaded reforms could lose out on a significant bloc of support: Two of the three declared mayoral candidates have already said they won’t accept campaign donations from police unions. And those who resist reforms risk offending communities that have been demanding change as part of a national reckoning over policing, according to political analysts who have followed the calls for reform in Boston.
“Politicians don’t like to buck police,” said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, “But [the 2021 campaign season] is a different environment they’ll be playing in.”
Support from any union could be significant, though not necessarily a game-changer. Mayor Martin J. Walsh bested a crowded field in 2013 without the declared support of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, one of the city’s largest unions. But the union, which had not endorsed anyone in that race, was still influential in shaping city policy early on in the administration, including in discussions for a police body camera program. Four years later, in 2017, the union backed Walsh’s reelection.
Now, with police reform at the top of the city’s agenda, Cunningham and other political analysts said that serious candidates for office — for mayor or City Council — will need to seek the proper balance between answering the community demands for change and standing up for police officers and the roles they play in the community.
“[Police] are important, it’s an important constituency, they’re still well regarded, and we still need them, we still call them, and we still appreciate them,” Cunningham said.
Marie St. Fleur, a community advocate and former state representative who served on a city task force that laid out a series of police reforms last year, said police unions will similarly have to recognize the community demands for change. She said unions should be equally responsive to those demands as they weigh which candidates to support.
“If it’s the police union of old, I think it’s going to be a challenge,” she said. “I think if it’s the police union of today that understands the city has changed, that it also has to change with the times and respect the constituency that it’s sworn to serve, then perhaps there’s some value there.”
She added, “We have an opportunity to move the agenda forward on police reform in Boston … and that shouldn’t be lost in the transition.”
Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
But the association that represents Black and brown police officers in Massachusetts called the mayor’s race a pivotal opportunity to lay out issues the group has pressed for years, such as diversity within police ranks and disproportionate disciplinary rates against officers of color.
“For the mayoral candidates, they should ensure that there is representation from all sides when talking about police reform,” said Jeffrey Lopes, a Boston police officer and president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers Inc. “They should make sure that there is a representation of law enforcement to ensure that those involved understand the different lived experiences of a police officer, minority and non-minority.”
Campaign finance records show the police unions have been deeply involved in city politics. An analysis of such records conducted last year by the political organizing group Mijente — in partnership with the ACLU and Boston University’s BU Spark! Data project — showed that Boston police officers and unions have donated more than $1 million to Boston officials over the last 10 years.
Councilors who tend to support police in city matters have received tens of thousands of dollars in that time, including Councilor Michael Flaherty ($38,700) and Annissa Essaibi George, one of the candidates for mayor ($26,700). Those who have pushed for reforms — often Black and brown candidates representing these communities — have received far less, such as Council President Kim Janey ($6,100) and Andrea Campbell ($5,400), according to the review.
Campbell and Councilor Michelle Wu (who received $3,350 over the last decade) are also running to replace Walsh.
Janey, who will serve as acting mayor, has not said whether she will enter the race. She has been a fierce critic of the police department, and last spring she led local officials in delivering a letter to Walsh outlining “A Black and Brown Agenda for Boston” that demanded police reforms.
Wu and Campbell also signed the letter. Essaibi George did not.
According to a separate Globe review of campaign finance records that examined just the last two years, Janey did not receive any financial support from a police union. Neither did Campbell, who led the council effort to create an independent Office of Police Accountability and Transparency; her campaign says she will not accept any through the election.
“As mayor, I will continue to push for accountability, transparency, diversity and to eradicate racial disparities in policing and I won’t let anyone stand in the way of getting that done,” Campbell said.
Wu, who has also been critical of police, received $500 from the Patrolmen’s Association in May 2019, but her campaign says she will not accept union donations for the mayoral race.
Essaibi George has been more moderate on police reforms and last year supported the mayor’s budget in spite of community calls for deeper cuts to the police department (Wu and Campbell voted against the budget, in a losing effort to force deeper cuts). She was also among the minority of councilors who opposed a council ordinance restricting police use of pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Essaibi George has received more than $3,000 over the last two years.
The figures calculated by the Globe are donations from police unions, not personal donations by individual police officers or family members.
A spokeswoman for Essaibi George said that the councilor agrees with the need for police reforms and that she has accepted contributions from Boston police as well as reform advocates.
City councilors, who face reelection in the fall, have also paid closer scrutiny to police finances and resources, flexing more authority in budget matters than in years past.
Councilor Kenzie Bok, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, has pushed for councilors to be more involved in negotiations for the city’s labor contracts with police unions. That effort could include leveraging city finances to demand improvements to use-of-force policies and to hold officers more accountable.
Jamarhl Crawford, a community advocate who also served on Walsh’s task force, said that candidates in the past had built platforms on the promise of law and order, to support police. But he said community advocates demand a different agenda now.
“For anyone to deviate from that, I think there would be folly,’' Crawford said. “It would be foolish now to try and move back what the community has spoken on.”