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Newton police must shift from ‘warrior’ to ‘guardian’ mind-set, report says

Newton Police headquarters on Washington Street.
Newton Police headquarters on Washington Street.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/file

Two months after Newton officers shot and killed a resident, a task force is recommending greater civilian oversight of Newton’s police, improved training on issues such as mental health, and measures to help diversify the department, according to a report.

The task force, formed by Mayor Ruthanne Fuller last summer amid Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the city and across the country, issued its report during a period of shifting police leadership — and following a pair of high-profile incidents involving Newton police.

In January, Newton police shot and killed Michael Conlon, 28, a resident experiencing a mental health crisis. And last May, a Newton officer drew his gun when police stopped a Black resident while searching for a Boston homicide suspect.

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Conlon’s family, in a letter to the Globe published Monday said the task force’s report was “a step in the right direction.”

“But it is important that the public and the Legislature know that this isn’t just about policy or punishment — it’s about people,” the Conlon family said.

Fuller, in a separate statement Thursday, said she will be coming forward in the coming weeks with her vision and the city’s plans for the Newton Police Department. The city, in a separate process, is also searching for a new police chief to replace Chief David MacDonald, who retired last summer.

The interviews for a new police chief have already begun, and she expects to announce the next leader in early April.

“I look forward to sharing a more comprehensive vision for the Newton Police Department in the coming weeks and working with the new Chief on specific goals, objectives and action plans,” Fuller said.

The police task force, in its report, said it was motivated by an effort to “identify, understand, and actively combat” the effects of systemic racism and other forms of bias in law enforcement and public safety.

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Its recommendations include the creation of a Newton Police Committee that would be made up of community members and serve as civilian oversight for the department.

The city should also develop a strategy for more diverse recruitment, hiring, and promotion of department personnel, according to the report.

The task force recommended effective and ongoing training for police on the impact of systemic racism on policing, as well as best practices for responding to behavioral health crises.

It also called on the department to transition from a “warrior mindset” to a “guardian mindset.” Department members should be part of an inclusive culture that emphasizes a “customer service orientation.”

The city should also reduce its reliance on police regarding non-criminal matters, the report said, such as responding to nuisance calls.

In its report, the task force referred to both the January shooting and the May police stop, and said its recommendations “reflect the seriousness of these events and offer strategies that will reduce the likelihood of similar events in the future.”

On Jan. 5, Newton officers shot and killed Michael Conlon, 28, whose death prompted calls for more mental health resources for those who need assistance. The shooting remains under investigation by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan.

At a press conference following the incident, investigators said Conlon was experiencing a mental health crisis when police attempted to negotiate with him, fired a nonlethal beanbag at him, and struck him with a Taser. Conlon then attacked officers with a knife and fire extinguisher, and they responded with gunfire, according to Ryan.

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Four Newton officers, including the two who shot Conlon, remain on administrative leave.

In their first public comments following the shooting, Conlon’s family said he was a “gentle soul” who loved his family and was a thoughtful and caring person. Conlon looked forward to becoming an uncle, and had a great sense of humor.

Conlon also faced the reality of living with mental illness, just as millions of other people do, his family said.

“He worked hard to build an independent life, be a good neighbor, and settle in his community. We would exchange text messages daily until the weekends arrived when he would return home,” the letter said. “Now, every day we are reminded of his stark absence in our lives and the way in which his life ended.”

Conlon’s family said they recognized the city’s commitment to mental health training for police, but said such training “is not only called for, but also necessary.”

“We are left wondering whether, had this training been mandatory for all officers on Jan. 5, Michael might still be with us,” the Conlon family said.

In May, resident Tim Duncan was stopped by a group of Newton officers while out walking. Police were searching for a Black suspect sought in connection with a fatal shooting in Boston, and when Duncan was stopped by Newton police, one officer drew his gun.

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Duncan discussed the stop in an emotional Youtube video following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and later met with the city task force. According to the task force report, Duncan felt the actions of the police during his encounter were traumatizing.

A subsequent internal police investigation found the stop was justified, but noted that the officer who drew his gun did not immediately file a police use of force form.

One of the task force’s members, Achille Vann Ricca, issued a dissenting statement included in the report that advocated reallocation of resources from police to other community services.

“At a time when other cities around the country are adopting more decisive measures against systemic racism and policing, I urge Newton not to fall behind the curve of progress because we believe ourselves to be ‘progressive enough,’” Vann Ricca said.



John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.