Support from police unions is no longer the political treasure it once was in Boston. But has the city reached a point where such backing would actually be disqualifying?
The city has arrived at a long-overdue turning point. It had always been led by white men, but all six major candidates now vying to become the next mayor identify as people of color, and four of them are women. And Boston, like every city, has been forced to confront racism and police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last year and the protests for justice that followed.
All of the candidates say they support policing reform, but some want more change than others. And their relationships with police -- or lack thereof -- reflect that.
At one end of the spectrum, City Councilor Andrea Campbell has been especially vocal, leading the charge for civilian oversight and greater accountability. Along with fellow councilors and now mayoral candidates Michelle Wu and Kim Janey, she called last summer for then-Mayor Marty Walsh to cut the BPD budget by 10 percent and reallocate the money to social programs.
Unlike the others, Campbell has been savaged by the city’s largest police union. When they targeted her on Twitter for holding up some grant funding, she rightly pointed out that the union was in no position to criticize her when it comes to accountability, given that it had fought efforts to fire patrolman and alleged child abuser Patrick Rose in the mid-1990s, and eventually elevated him to lead the union. Rose is now charged with raping five more children. In response, the union called Campbell a hypocrite, accusing her of enabling her brother, who has been charged with kidnapping and raping multiple women.
There’s no hint that Campbell did anything of the sort. Even for a union with a history of low blows, the tweet was shameful. Campbell should wear the union’s derision as a badge of honor.
Janey is walking a more difficult path on police reform now that she is acting mayor, charged with overseeing the force of which she has been a critic. Campbell and others have criticized the acting mayor for failing to make the deep police budget cuts she called for as a councilor, and for holding back some of the records on Rose. Her campaign counters that Janey has offered more transparency than Walsh did, and delivered plenty of reform given her short time in the job. Still, Janey is demonstrating the challenges of translating rhetoric into governing. She will catch heat by those on both sides of the police reform divide between now and September’s preliminary election.
Then there is Annissa Essaibi George, who is claiming the moderate -- some would say more conservative -- lane in the race. For example, she wants more resources for the social programs reformers are calling for, but opposes diverting a penny from the police department.
The police officers for whom she has been a reliable supporter have donated heavily to her campaigns over the years. During this campaign, she has also been showing up for shift changes at police stations to answer questions and listen to officers’ concerns, a spokesman said.
That kind of courting would have given a candidate an advantage not so long ago. What about this year?
It’s not yet clear whether police reform will be a central issue in this contest. Surveys by MassINC Polling show a majority of Bostonians want more police accountability, but that it is not the top concern for voters; the pandemic is. So aligning herself with police might not hurt Essaibi George, especially in a crowded, low-turnout preliminary where a candidate could make the final with as little as a quarter of the vote.
“Boston is still not a city where a pro-cop candidate is in peril,” said Malia Lazu, a diversity consultant and longtime community organizer. “But it might come back to haunt them [in the final] ... where they need Black and brown people, and white progressives.”
What happens in this race will tell us how much Boston has really changed. Voters who would like it to be a lot should watch to see which way the police union goes, then head in the other direction.