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Boston City Council again votes to restrict police use of tear gas, projectiles during protests

A similar measure was vetoed last December by former mayor Walsh

Boston police officers walked down a tear gas-filled Winter Street in Downtown Crossing last May 31.
Boston police officers walked down a tear gas-filled Winter Street in Downtown Crossing last May 31.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

For the second time in less than a year, the Boston City Council on Wednesday passed an ordinance restricting police in their use of chemical agents such as tear gas and projectiles like sponge rounds to control crowds.

The proposal limits such weapons, as well as pepper spray and rubber bullets, against people engaged in protests or gatherings of more than 10 people.

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, one of the measure’s sponsors, said he would support a complete ban of such weapons but called the ordinance “an essential first step.”

“These restrictions will protect the residents of Boston from indiscriminate, dangerous, and even fatal impacts of such devices, especially during lawful protests or demonstrations,” Arroyo said in a statement.

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The measure follows the mass social-justice protests last summer that roiled the nation and shone a spotlight on police tactics.

Other American cities have take steps in recent months to curb police use of crowd-control weapons. Last fall, the Philadelphia City Council barred the use of tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators. A month earlier, the mayor for Portland, Ore., told that city’s police force to cease its use of tear gas for crowd control.

The Boston measure passed 7-5 during Wednesday’s meeting, which was conducted virtually. The five dissenting votes were Councilors Frank Baker, Annissa Essaibi George, Michael Flaherty, Ed Flynn, and Matt O’Malley.

The council had passed a similar initiative last December, but then-mayor Martin J. Walsh vetoed it, saying the measure included “considerable questions as to the practicality and potential consequences of many of the proposals contained in the ordinance.”

The idea also received pushback last year from then-police commissioner William Gross, who called the proposal “highly inflexible.”

But Walsh has since left City Hall to become the nation’s labor secretary and Gross is now retired. Boston’s acting mayor, Kim Janey, was among those to vote in favor of the restrictions in December. She plans to sign the proposal into law, a spokesman confirmed Wednesday.

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The ordinance states that before crowd-control weapons can be used, an on-scene police supervisor must personally witness violence or property destruction and determine that no other reasonable methods of de-escalation will be successful, officials said. It mandates that the same supervisor give two separate warnings at least two minutes apart announcing to those gathered that they must disperse and specify what weapon will be used if they don’t leave. Police must also ensure the group has a way to exit the situation.

The newest ordinance contains some tweaks to the proposal Walsh vetoed, including removal of a provision that mandates minimum disciplinary action for officers who violate the new rules, and a new requirement for BPD to maintain and preserve body camera footage following the use of the crowd-control weapons. Such footage should be provided to the city’s new police watchdog or state agencies with oversight responsibilities, according to Arroyo’s office.

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell called the proposal “a necessary piece of our collective action to ensure transparency and accountability in our policing.”

“While I personally believe we should ban weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets from ever being used against civilians, ensuring that the City has a specific, transparent, restrictive policy to guide how and when they are used is absolutely necessary to protect our residents, including our police officers, from harm and injustice at large-scale events,” Campbell, another ordinance sponsor, said in a statement.

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The measure marks the latest attempt at police reform from city lawmakers. Earlier this year, the new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, an independent city watchdog that has the authority to investigate officer misconduct, was signed into law. Its first executive director starts Monday.

Wednesday’s passage of the crowd control proposal comes about 11 months after Boston police used tear gas, a spray similar to pepper spray, and sponge rounds, which are made of foam rubber, on crowds during a night of violence and turmoil in the heart of the city. Last May 31, violence followed a massive, peaceful march protesting police brutality and systemic racism that started in Nubian Square and ended at the steps of the State House.

Later that night and into the early hours of the next morning, at least 27 people were sent to the hospital in what was the worst unrest the city had seen in recent years. Stores throughout downtown and in the Back Bay were ransacked. More than 50 people were arrested.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Arroyo mentioned Victoria Snelgrove, the Emerson College student from East Bridgewater who was killed when Boston police fired pepper-pellets into a raucous crowd during the 2004 Red Sox pennant celebrations. She was struck in the eye by a pellet fired into a throng on Lansdowne Street by an officer who later said he was aiming for someone else.

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In other business on Wednesday, the council also voted in favor of moving this year’s municipal preliminary election up a week, from Sept. 21 to Sept. 14. That matter now heads to Janey’s desk. Janey’s office will review the proposal, but the acting mayor intends to sign it, the spokesman said.




Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.