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George Floyd’s legacy: A wake-up call

Massachusetts is on the cusp of police reform, but Boston shows it won’t be easy.

Police officers in riot gear stand guard during a pro-police and Trump rally, organized by "Super Happy Fun America," outside the Massachusetts State House, June 27, 2020.JOSEPH PREZIOSO/AFP via Getty Images

Looking back, this was the moment that was supposed to change history.

The murder of George Floyd one year ago — the video of this man dying before the eyes of a shocked nation under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer for more than nine excruciating minutes — brought thousands of people into the streets of hundreds of American cities, including Boston, Springfield, Fall River, and countless suburban communities. A new generation marched, held vigils, and demanded change.

“Say his name,” they chanted as they marched. And the name of George Floyd became a “never again” moment, a call for racial justice in policing, a recognition that the scourge of racism must somehow be driven from the ranks of those sworn to “serve and protect” the public.


But turning activism into action, slogans into legislation, and good intentions into real change is a tough job, a long hard slog that has only just begun in this state and in its capital city.

The passage at the end of last year of a sweeping state-wide police reform bill has set the stage for changing the course of policing in Massachusetts. It was, of course, some two years in the making, as members of the Legislature’s Black and Latino Caucus had been negotiating with the governor’s office long before the death of George Floyd. But it did take that tragedy and its aftermath to make it happen.

And that, in turn, says a good deal about the effort it will take to assure its implementation at every step of the way. Just one month ago, the nine members of the new Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, created by the police reform bill, were sworn in. Its chair, retired Judge Margaret Hinkle, has a reputation as a tough, no-nonsense jurist who is more than aware of the “aggressive” timelines in the statute for setting up a public database for decertified police officers (also those who have been suspended and those ordered to undergo retraining) and for crafting certification standards for new officers.


Most of the commission’s work kicks off July 1, but it has already held one public meeting and is in the process of hiring an executive director and general counsel.

Its work will be critical in determining much that will happen on the streets — including guidance on de-escalation techniques. Restrictions on the use of force, on the use of no-knock warrants, and on crowd control techniques — all part of the reform bill — will be only as effective as the guidance on their use and enforcement of that guidance.

The bill bans the use of choke holds, bans officers from being trained in their use, and creates a “duty to intervene” by fellow officers who witness any inappropriate use of force. That is George Floyd’s most immediate legacy.

But the Boston Police Department has demonstrated in recent days what happens when doing the right thing comes up against the blue wall of silence — and that in turn tells a tale of how difficult the job of implementing police reform can be. Efforts to stonewall an independent investigation into domestic abuse allegations against Dennis White, following his appointment as police commissioner, are an all-too-current example of a culture that must change. No single statute can do that.


Boston will also get its own new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, to be headed by attorney Stephanie Everett — a move announced last month by Acting Mayor Kim Janey. That, too, is a start — and change must start somewhere. But Boston has also proved that attempts to redirect funding — whether former mayor Marty Walsh’s promise to divert funds to add mental health counselors to accompany police or Janey’s pledge to fund the new OPAT by cutting police overtime — are often mythical.

In Boston, critical elements of reform — things like full-time mandated use of body cameras or making use of civilians for traffic details — will require tough negotiations of the next police union contracts.

No, Boston isn’t Minneapolis. But it has been far from perfect, especially on issues of transparency.

A Boston police officer accused of using excessive force during one of those early George Floyd protests is back on desk duty — his case still unresolved. And when the Boston City Council wanted answers about another officer who was in Washington during the Jan. 6 insurrection, well, no one from the BPD came to respond to their questions. That, too, speaks to the difficulty of changing not just laws but a culture that has long lacked transparency.

History is often made in fits and starts. The killing of George Floyd touched off one of those moments — a moment when progress on changing policing seemed possible and when some progress was actually made. But that job is far from done. The rest will require vigilance — that laws are carried out, that commissions do what they are mandated to do and that the message is not lost that Boston residents — all its residents — want to feel safe and protected and that those goals are not mutually exclusive.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.