fb-pixelLeaders said the reckoning following George Floyd’s death would bring change to Boston police. The jury remains out - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Leaders said the reckoning following George Floyd’s death would bring change to Boston police. The jury remains out

Activists pleaded with the Boston police to "take a knee" as they participated in a demonstration outside the Forest Hills T Station on June 2, 2020. The rally and vigil honored George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and local victims of police brutality.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

It was a seminal moment in a year marked by roiling protests and civic unrest.

The city’s police reform task force — convened following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — had just presented its review of the Boston Police Department to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and now, the mayor stood inside City Hall and announced that he was accepting all of the recommendations put forth by the group, vowing to implement each within 180 days.

Whereas previous attempts at meaningful reform had fallen short, Walsh told those gathered that day last October that this time would be different.


“This time,” Walsh said, “we must — and we will — sustain the urgency.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke at a press conference flanked by members of the Boston Police Reform Task Force as he announced a plan for a slate of reforms to the Police Department on Oct 13, 2020. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

But on the one-year anniversary of Floyd’s death, it’s unclear just how much of that urgency remains.

While Floyd’s murder has no doubt sparked a push for police reform nationwide, the tangible effects haven’t always been easy to discern in Boston, a city that has long struggled with race, and where police reform efforts have often fallen by the wayside.

The city has created the recommended police accountability office, one of the task force’s top priorities, and revised the Police Department’s use-of-force policy. But Walsh’s 180-day deadline has come and gone, with few of the other items on the to-do list fully implemented.

Walsh, too, has departed, to become the new labor secretary. Meanwhile, the first two months of Acting Mayor Kim Janey’s tenure have been devoted to more immediate concerns — namely, navigating a pair of scandals that have heaped embarrassment on the police force.

“I hate to say, I don’t feel the urgency,” said Marie St. Fleur, a former state representative and one of the 11 members of the reform task force. “We have a structure that is recommended [that] really has not been put in place.”


Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a police spokesman, last week pointed to only a handful of reforms that have been implemented — among them, the formation of an internal committee to examine racial equity — though a number of others, he said, were in progress.

Among the pledged reforms not in place: a list of zero-tolerance infractions for which an officer could be immediately terminated, as well as the creation of a public dashboard detailing officers’ internal affairs records. A bias-free policing policy, also sought by the task force, remains in draft form. And a plan to investigate and reclassify domestic violence accusations against officers as cases of excessive force hasn’t happened.

Boyle said department leaders meet each week to assess the state of the reforms.

The lack of progress, some say, highlights just how difficult it can be to carry out substantial reform even when public officials appear to be on board.

People watched from inside BPD headquarters on April 21 as protesters gathered out front to celebrate the conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and to demand an end to police brutality. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“It is not uncommon for an agency — or leaders, or policy makers — to make all kinds of promises about change after crises,” says Brenda J. Bond-Fortier, a professor at Suffolk University who specializes in public administration and policy implementation. “And as we’ve seen here [in Boston], doing the work is much more complicated than making a statement.”

Indeed, previous attempts to examine the department have produced little in the way of change.

In the early 1990s, attorney James D. St. Clair was tapped to lead a sweeping review of the Boston Police Department in the aftermath of the Charles Stuart case. Stuart, who was white, falsely accused a Black gunman of fatally shooting his pregnant wife, prompting an aggressive police dragnet through Boston’s Black community. But the story was fiction, and authorities ultimately tied Stuart to the murder.


In the ensuing years, Boston’s nearly all-white police force grew more diverse, at one point mirroring the community it policed. But that progress has since eroded; as of last summer, roughly 65 percent of the department’s sworn officers were white, compared to about 52 percent of the city’s population.

The city convened another task force in 2015 following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., to examine the possibility of an independent watchdog office. The group put forth many of the same recommendations that would be offered last year.

Few, if any, substantial changes came from those reviews, and as the most recent task force’s proposed deadlines — all within 180 days — have come and gone, some have been left to wonder whether this time will be any different.

“Is this one more report?” asked Wayne Budd, chair of last year’s task force and the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts at the time of the Stuart case. “We’re hoping not, because I can’t tell you how hard people on that task force worked, [and] we’d feel very badly if it ended up on a trash heap.”

The roadblocks to substantial reform can be numerous. Politically powerful police unions. Mandated State House sign-offs. A lack of sustained public outcry.


What’s more, some police supporters have maintained that the absence of a George Floyd-type incident in the city is evidence that Boston’s force is immune to the ills of other departments — an idea that many dismiss outright.

“This notion that Boston is different from Minneapolis or Chicago or Baltimore or Ferguson is a false narrative,” said Michael Curry, a past president of the NAACP’s Boston branch. “We can’t just sit back, because we’re only a phone call away from it happening here.”

For their part, some members of last year’s task force acknowledge that the city is in a period of transition; Janey is in just her second month as acting mayor, while former police commissioner William Gross, who publicly applauded the task force recommendations last fall, retired unexpectedly in January. The department’s current leadership is also in limbo, as Gross’s and Walsh’s hand-picked replacement, Dennis White, is suspended and fighting for his job after past allegations of domestic violence surfaced.

Some, too, said they recognize there are certain recommendations that would take longer than others, such as those requiring approval at the state level.

“I’ve been in government,” said Joseph D. Feaster, Jr., chairman of the board for the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts and a task force member. “Government moves like a battleship in the bathtub. So I’m not going to be unfair.”

But, he added, “I’m certainly not going to just let [Floyd-inspired reforms] dissipate without putting up a fight.”


Protesters linked arms to form a barricade between the police and the crowd following a rally and vigil organized by Black Lives Matter Boston on June 2, 2020.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In a call last week, several of the task force members received an update from new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency executive director Stephanie Everett on the progress being made. During the call, Everett described the steps she planned to take over the next three months, and many of the former task force members offered their continued assistance in seeing the recommendations through.

Feaster said he left the call feeling “cautiously optimistic.” But, he added, “Will I be as forgiving, or understanding, come September? I don’t know.”

In its report last year, the task force made a point to describe its recommendations as “the floor rather than the ceiling,” warning that the city and the department must continue to work with the community in the devising of additional reforms.

But the delays in implementing even these initial changes, St. Fleur said, illustrate the vigilance required to ensure the group’s work doesn’t go to waste.

“We have to stay on top of it,” said St. Fleur. “Otherwise, we’re going to find ourselves in another moment that has passed us by.”

Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed.

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com.