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Amid series of scandals, police reform moves to forefront of Boston mayoral campaign

Police prepared for a group’s protest in January. Political support from the police unions means votes and campaign donations.
Police prepared for a group’s protest in January. Political support from the police unions means votes and campaign donations.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/file

The Boston Police Department, already in deep disarray after two high-profile scandals, has taken center stage in the mayor’s race after a damning report laid bare an internal culture of secrecy and scant accountability, and raised disturbing questions about how police commissioner Dennis White landed in the top job despite a pattern of alleged domestic violence.

The results of an independent investigation into the allegations against White, released by Acting Mayor Kim Janey last Friday, magnified what was already a top issue in the mayoral race. The scathing report came not long after revelations that Patrick Rose was allowed to remain on the force, rising to head the powerful Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union, despite credible allegations dating back to 1995 that he had molested multiple children.

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The dual scandals underscore what a giant task the next mayor faces, and the six major candidates have redoubled their efforts to show they’re up to the job of revamping a department that has proven resistant to change.

But reform advocates and political analysts said that true change will require proposals that go further than merely resolving the White debacle, which has left the department’s leadership in question.

“Reform can’t just be a small phrase in a large symphony — reform is the symphony,” said Jack Greene, a professor emeritus of criminology at Northeastern University. “And it’s going to require a lot of input from a lot of stakeholders. It’s not something you pull off the shelf and say, ‘Here we go.’ ”

Of the six top candidates, Councilor Andrea Campbell has made the most aggressive calls to hold police brass more accountable. She led the push for the creation of an Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, known as OPAT, within the department. It is the city’s first independent police watchdog office.

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Councilor Michelle Wu has called for a public health-centered focus on policing, such as hiring more counselors to focus on mental health matters. She has also laid out plans to leverage negotiations for a new police union contract to force departmental change.

John Barros, the city’s former head of economic development, called for greater partnerships between police and mental health and social workers. State Representative Jon Santiago is pitching a measured approach that combines support for police with other resources in a way “that reflects the community policing standard.”

And Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who is generally more willing to defend police than her opponents, said she recognizes the need for “tough conversations”; she called for strengthening existing practices, such as training and performance evaluation, while extending support to officers “that do their jobs well, with integrity, and are always willing to do and be better.”

Just a day before the White report went public, Essaibi George accepted the endorsement of former commissioner William Gross, who recommended White for the top job and continued to defend the choice.

As acting mayor, Janey has been best positioned to carry out some of her proposals, helping her build out her platform in what has become a competitive race for mayor. Her former post as council president meant Janey ascended to acting mayor when Martin J. Walsh became US labor secretary.

Janey has since hired the first executive director of OPAT, which was created under Walsh, and committed $1 million to the office in the next fiscal year’s budget. She also commissioned an outside investigation into the department’s handling of Rose, who was charged last year with child sex abuse, two years after his retirement. The Globe first reported on the history of allegations against Rose in April, after Walsh had already left.

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In announcing the results of the investigation into the allegations of White, Janey said she would strengthen the department’s domestic violence policies and create its first sexual assault policy. She moved to fire White, but now finds herself in legal limbo after White went to court to stop her. The standoff has sparked the first real political barbs of the campaign season.

“We need to make sure the Boston Police Department has leadership. That’s not the case right now,” Santiago said in an interview.

Wu said separately, “We have to hit the highest standards of transparency and accountability and that requires leadership that can lead without questions.”

Janey’s campaign says she is “tearing down the ‘blue wall of silence.’ ”

“While others talk about reforming the BPD — Mayor Janey is doing it,” her campaign manager, Kirby Chandler, said.

And yet, while Janey is arguably in the best place to demonstrate she can revamp the department, it’s also made her the prime political target. Advocates say her proposed budget for the next fiscal year fails to force sufficient change and falls short of the goals Janey herself laid out last year when she was council president.

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The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts called Janey’s spending plan “effectively unchanged from years past,” and “more of the same.” Though Janey committed to hiring more police officers to reduce overtime spending, the same ACLU review found that the strategy does not translate into less costs. More police officers has historically equated to more overtime spending, it said.

Also, the $1 million Janey budged for OPAT is only a third of the projected $3 million in costs it would take to establish a true independent accountability office. That calculation was made by a task force that first proposed a strengthened police watchdog five years ago, under Walsh’s tenure. That plan was never implemented.

Larry Mayes, a lawyer and a former member of a Civilian Oversight Opportunity Panel that helped conduct that review, said the calculation represented the true costs of what it would take to run the office, including investigators, a community engagement process, and a proper staff.

“These things cost money, and you have to pay for that,” said Mayes, who said his comments weren’t meant as commentary on the race or Janey.

Calls for reform have intensified this year amid a national reckoning over equity and accountability in policing, following repeated instances of police abuses, including the police killing of unarmed Black and brown people.

Walsh commissioned a Boston Police Reform Task Force to recommend changes last year, in response to street protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But the task force review was narrowly focused to areas such as the creation of a watchdog office, which eventually became OPAT. Advocates want more.

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“Our whole position is that this is the floor, not the ceiling, for reform. But we have to get started somewhere,” said Joseph Feaster, a member of the task force, who joined other members in a phone call with Janey’s administration Tuesday afternoon to check the status of the reforms.

Policing experts and retired officers say the city should look to force changes to department policy, perhaps through the officers’ politically powerful labor unions at the collective bargaining table.

They also argue that Janey should hold off on selecting White’s replacement and allow the winner of November’s mayoral race to make the choice. And they’re urging city leaders to look outside the department for its next leader, for someone who could bring a fresh set of eyes to reform. The city has not looked outside the department since former commissioner Edward Davis was appointed in 2006.

“There should be someone who comes in with a mandate to shake things up and make some changes,” said Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant who now teaches at Emmanuel College. If a new commissioner is chosen from within the ranks, he said, “that would no doubt send [the message] to the rank and file and the unions that this is going to be status quo.”

Regardless, it’s clear the police unions, including the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Union, will still look to have a say in the reform discussion — and the upcoming mayoral campaign. With roughly 1,600 members, the union can carry great weight for a candidate, in the form of votes, campaign donations, and street-level work hours. Police officers have already donated more than $60,000 in campaign dollars to Essaibi George, who has voted more often in their favor, and has been attending police roll calls while on the campaign trail. That’s 10 times more in donations than for any other candidate.

In recent weeks, candidates have taken to talk shows and podcasts to lay out their reforms, and ways they will bend a culture that has been resistant to change. The day before the White report was released, Essaibi walked through Mattapan with Gross, after accepting his endorsement. On Monday night, Wu held a livestream on Twitter to discuss police reforms. And on Tuesday, Campbell accepted the endorsement of Marie St. Fleur, a community leader and a member of the Boston Police Reform Task Force.

“Policing is in a real state of evolution,” said Dennis Galvin, a retired State Police major and president of the Mass. Association for Professional Law Enforcement. “The mayor, she just stepped in, and she’s probably over her head with all kinds of things going on. But if she wants to instill confidence in the Boston Police Department, she has to make it more transparent, and she has to make sure the external controls of the department work — and if it doesn’t, try to fix it.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.