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Nearly a year after George Floyd’s death, Boston area communities are reexamining policing

A large crowd marched down Washington Street in Newton last June, protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
A large crowd marched down Washington Street in Newton last June, protesting the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Nearly a year after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, proposals to overhaul local law enforcement and root out systemic racism are making headway in several Greater Boston communities.

In Brookline, a passionate debate over how to rethink policing led the Select Board to form two panels — one a “reforms” committee, the other a task force to “reimagine” policing. Each has developed its own set of recommended changes for the town’s police department.

Newton’s mayor recently received recommendations from a task force that called for greater civilian oversight of city police and more training for officers on issues such as the impact of systemic racism on doing their jobs.

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Meanwhile, the community group Equal Justice in Needham is calling for greater action to address systemic racism in that community, while the town has launched the Needham Unite Against Racism Initiative.

In all three communities, the reform efforts were spurred by the death of Floyd last May, and followed nationwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations demanding accountability and widespread changes to undo longstanding systemic racism in law enforcement.

Policing in each of the communities has come under scrutiny in recent years. In Newton, police stopped a Black resident while searching for a Boston murder suspect in May; in a separate incident, a Newton Highlands man suffering a mental health crisis was shot and killed by city officers.

In Brookline, the police department faced allegations of racism from two former officers several years ago.

And in Needham, police faced allegations of racial profiling last year when a Black employee of a local business was wrongly identified as a shoplifter.

The efforts in local communities also coincide with the murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was video-recorded as he pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes last May while Floyd was in custody and lying on the ground. Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe, and onlookers pleaded with Chauvin to get off Floyd.

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Three other former Minneapolis officers are also due to stand trial in connection with Floyd’s killing.

“It was a community response to everything going on in the country with George Floyd and BLM protests,” said Rebecca Waber, with Equal Justice in Needham, of local efforts, “and the recognition that we needed to do the work here as well.”

In Greater Boston, the community-level efforts now underway are looking at potential changes that could reshape how policing works.

In Brookline, the “reimagine” task force calls for steps like ending police programs in schools and on Brookline Housing Authority property, and for the town to provide the public more data about police operations.

One sweeping change would be to redirect some funding away from police toward other public services and create a new town department, Brookline Forward, that would merge senior and veterans offerings with supports for a wide range of residents, including immigrants, refugees, and members of the LGBTQ community.

“We think there is responsibility to invest in those people who are most in need in our community, and that’s what this office would do,” said Select Board member Raul Fernandez, who leads the “reimagine” task force.

The “reforms” committee has recommended additional town-funded social worker positions; a liaison position for the town’s Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations; and a part-time worker to help provide services for the town’s homeless residents. It also calls for funding a study to assess the extent of disparate treatment of people of color during vehicle stops.

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Bernard Greene, the Select Board chairman and head of the “reforms” committee, said the police department has done much to improve over the past three decades, and the recent review is part of that ongoing process.

“We have a police department that reflects the progressive culture of Brookline. I think it’s important for people to acknowledge that and act accordingly,” Greene said.

Newton’s police reform recommendations, which were announced by Mayor Ruthanne Fuller in March, calls on the city to develop a strategy for more diverse recruitment, hiring, and promotion of department personnel. It also called on police to shift from a “warrior” to a “guardian” mindset, improve training in areas like mental health and racial bias, and reduce policing in non-criminal matters.

Fuller, who appointed the task force, said she will release plans for the Newton Police Department in the coming weeks.

Fuller said the city already has begun working on new programs such as a community crisis intervention team to help support Newton residents and their families.

The team is co-led by police and human services department staff, with partners from other agencies, including the city’s public schools and fire department, Newton Wellesley Hospital, and the state Department of Mental Health, Fuller said.

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Newton District Court also is working with the city’s police and health and human services departments to create a “Mental Health Court,” Fuller said. The new court is intended to help those with mental illness navigate their way through the court system to get access to services like treatment and medication.

Newton’s police officers also will have access to crisis intervention training to help them respond to people affected by psychiatric illness, developmental disorders, and substance abuse, Fuller said.

Defund NPD, a community group, criticized the recommendations and called for sweeping changes to policing in Newton and redirecting resources to other community services.

The organization released its own recommendations calling on elected city officials to decrease the footprint of policing, establish a “fully-funded” community care infrastructure, improve police accountability, and revise Newton public safety governance structure.

“Defund NPD has remained adamant that reforming the police department alone is an insufficient way to respond to Black-led demands for an end to racist policing and a radical reimagining of public safety,” the group said.

In Needham, the Equal Justice in Needham group has released two reports looking at the police department.

The group, which said it also spent more than $1,000 on a public records request for police data, said in February that its review showed “significant and increasing race-based disparities in policing outcomes” in Needham.

The town of Needham and the police department are reviewing the Equal Justice in Newton’s report on policing data and the group’s “interpretation” of that data, according to a statement released by a town spokeswoman.

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The town’s Select Board and members of Equal Justice in Needham will meet to discuss their findings, according to both Waber and a town spokeswoman.

In December, the community group also said the Needham police contract is “lacking” in areas like performance evaluation and discipline for officers. The town, in its statement, said there are “clear, written policies in place around each of these issues.”

The town said, in its statement, that the Needham Unite Against Racism Initiative was launched to foster “a dialogue about racism in Needham and producing actionable strategies to ensure Needham is a welcoming and inclusive community.”

Waber, with Equal Justice in Needham, said the town has an opportunity to do better on issues like policing.

“We need to get more people civically engaged in town, which we are doing,” Waber said of the community group’s efforts. “We need to have these tough conversations that are open [to discussing] improvement.”

A sign lay at the feet of a protester near Brookline Select Board chairman Bernard Greene’s residence during a rally demanding a 50 percent cut to the town Police Department budget
A sign lay at the feet of a protester near Brookline Select Board chairman Bernard Greene’s residence during a rally demanding a 50 percent cut to the town Police Department budget Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

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