For all the progress made, at least on paper, by last year’s statewide police reform bill, it remains true that the future of public safety can only be assured at the local level: on how policing works on the streets of every community in this Commonwealth.
And there have been glimmers of that future most recently in Lynn, with its development of a new crisis response team, and in Springfield, where the police chief disbanded its disgraced and discredited narcotics unit in favor of a new Firearms Investigation Unit aimed at getting illegal guns off the streets.
What leaders in both communities are demonstrating is that it’s not so much about “defunding” the police — the rallying cry that followed the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer on the streets of Minneapolis — as it is reinventing policing. It’s about using police more effectively and efficiently and providing additional resources to help departments deal with crises they were never designed to deal with — like people in the throes of a mental health crisis.
Now, admittedly, Springfield didn’t find its road to reform until after a July 2020 Department of Justice report that found “reasonable cause to believe the Narcotics Bureau . . . engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.” It also found “systemic deficiencies in policies, accountability systems, and training.”
Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood, a 40-year veteran of the department who became chief in the midst of that DOJ probe, is now trying to negotiate a settlement with the Justice Department, of which the new investigations unit is no doubt a piece. She has also, during her nearly two years on the job, implemented body-worn cameras for all of Springfield’s nearly 500 officers and created an audit unit to review footage from the cameras.
Rebuilding trust with the community is a long-term strategy, but disbanding a unit caught abusing its authority is certainly a start.
In Lynn, city officials have been working during the past year with the Lynn Racial Justice Coalition on a series of possible policing reforms — including a recently announced plan to allocate $500,000 for a new unarmed crisis response team called ALERT (for All Lynn Emergency Response Team). The pilot program is scheduled to kick off by the start of next year.
The Cambridge City Council also recently approved a plan to create a “holistic emergency alternative response team” to deal with mental health crises, although the Cambridge Police Department has for a number of years had its own officers trained through a partnership with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Massachusetts.
Whether teams are dispatched in lieu of or at the side of police officers remains an issue without an immediate solution.
What isn’t in question is that, nationally, police spend about 20 percent of their time responding to mental health calls, according to a 2017 study by the Treatment Advocacy Center. It’s also true that about a quarter of those fatally shot by police every year are people in a mental health crisis, according to an August 2020 study by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.
Boston can trace its own BEST (Boston Emergency Services Team) program back to 2011. But its five or so counselors were hardly a match for the estimated 9,600 calls the Boston Police Department received in 2019 involving an “emotionally disturbed person.” That didn’t, by the way, include actual specific mental health or substance abuse calls (which often go directly to EMS).
The Walsh administration’s 2021 budget allocated $2 million more to fund 15 additional crisis responder positions — using what turned out to be a totally fictitious “cut” in police overtime spending. That was last September in the wake of the George Floyd protests. A police spokesman told the Globe that so far 10 licensed clinical social workers have been hired for the program.
This year’s budget, passed under Acting Mayor Kim Janey, promises “a transformative investment in alternative policing,” including $1.75 million to the city’s Office of Health and Human Services “to study models of alternative policing around the country, make a recommendation as to the best path for the City of Boston, and begin training.”
A skeptical ACLU of Massachusetts called the proposal “vague” and not an “acceptable alternative” to actual reinvesting of police budgets.
But retrofitting traditional policing to meet the problems of a new age will never be easy. It will be accomplished in fits and starts. The encouraging thing is that it has indeed begun.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.