It is not one of those political issues where you have to squint to see the daylight between the candidates. When it comes to policing, the divide between Boston mayoral candidates Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu is stark.
While Essaibi George talks about forging a partnership with the city’s scandal-ridden Police Department “in order to achieve the change we need,” Wu has emphasized the need to overhaul the four primary police union contracts, which expired more than a year ago, so that officers are not “shielded from accountability.”
Essaibi George has said she opposes reallocating money from the Police Department’s budget to other programs and has called for adding 200 to 300 more sworn officers to a force of more than 2,000. But she has also refrained from seeking the endorsement of the local patrolmen’s union “because we aren’t in a good spot in which I feel they’re fully embracing the work that I’d like to see them do.”
“Does that mean I don’t have conversations with them?” she asked during a recent WBUR forum. “Does that mean we don’t do this work together? I don’t believe so.”
In a separate WBUR forum, Wu drew a clear line between her views on policing and her opponent’s, saying now the time had come for major reforms to the department’s structures and culture.
“There is a clear choice in this race, about the willingness and the boldness that each of us is presenting for truly tackling police reform,” she said.
Essaibi George’s policing stance has cast her as a more centrist figure in the race, while Wu’s unabashed progressivism and calls for reform contributed to a decisive victory in September’s preliminary contest. Wu is also the clear front-runner in Tuesday’s general election according to recent polls.
“It’s very telling that this is an issue that divides these candidates,” said David Hopkins, a Boston College political science professor. He thought it was consistent with Wu’s reputation as a progressive and as a candidate that draws support from the “socially liberal upscale professional class,” to emphasize that “police reform is necessary and that police funding should be scrutinized.”
On the other hand, Essaibi George, he said, comes from a political tradition where concern about crime and violence is a major component of local politics, and the expectation from voters is that local government needs to provide police for the purposes of public safety.
“They really do represent, or personify, two different traditions, two different wings of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Their contrasting views were clear in town halls, debates, on the campaign trail, and during their time as city councilors. For instance, Wu voted earlier this year for an ordinance restricting police use of chemical agents such as tear gas and projectiles like sponge rounds to control crowds. Essaibi George voted against it. The measure passed.
In the summer of 2020, with social justice protests being held across the country following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the City Council undertook a contentious budget vote, with police funding at the heart of the debate. Then-mayor Martin J. Walsh included a reduction of police overtime spending by $12 million in his operating budget, (the cuts ended up being moot as the department exceeded its yearly overtime allotment) but many councilors felt his changes did not do enough to address issues of structural racism. Wu voted against the budget, while Essaibi George voted in favor of it. The budget passed.
That summer, an array of local officials sent Walsh a a detailed reform agenda for Black and brown communities in Boston, calling for a 10 percent reduction in the department’s regular and overtime budgets, the abolishment of a local gang database, and the release of all information about internal affairs complaints and anticorruption probes, among a slew of other recommendations. Wu signed onto the letter; Essaibi George did not.
This week, however, Wu was more circumspect when asked whether she still supported the 10 percent cut saying, “It’s not enough to just put a specific number.
“We need to ensure accountability and that our resources are allocated in the right way, but that has to come with clear plans and with a commitment to execute those plans,” she said.
Essaibi George has received the endorsement of former Boston police commissioner William G. Gross, the first Black officer to oversee the department and the public face of a super PAC supporting her candidacy. That group, and another backing Essaibi George, have released ads stating that Wu wanted to “defund” the police, which Wu has denied.
By the same token, Essaibi George has pushed back on the notion throughout the race that she is the “cops’ candidate,” saying the label oversimplifies her stance on police reform. She recently said she agrees that the criminal justice system in Massachusetts is inherently racist and has acknowledged that white supremacist sympathies are a problem within Boston police. This week, her campaign said Essaibi George wants a police contract that “lays out a clear disciplinary process” that enables the commissioner to fire officers for bad behavior.
She has signaled she wants to reform the department’s internal affairs division, reduce overtime by rearranging officers’ shifts and changing staffing protocols for large events, create a more racially diverse department.
Last year, a Walsh-appointed task force recommended a slate of police reform recommendations, perhaps the most notable being a new independent police watchdog office with full investigative and subpoena powers.
Jamarhl Crawford, a reform advocate who served on the task force, said that “while their styles of implementation may vary, both [candidates] have expressed a commitment to fully implement those recommendations.”
Among public safety workers, Essaibi George is clearly the preferred candidate, campaign donations show. A recent Globe review found that Essaibi George had pulled in more than $150,000 from hundreds of city police officers and firefighters roughly 50 times what Wu was given.
Essaibi George received more individual donations from self-identified police officers and other Boston Police Department staffers than any other employer, with 319 contributions totaling more than $120,000.
The two candidates do have some common ground on law enforcement policy. For instance, both have voiced staunch support for having social workers and clinicians respond to emergency calls involving mental health situations, which police have typically handled in the past.
But a mayoral questionnaire from Progressive Mass earlier this year revealed sharp policy differences. Essaibi George said she did not support removing police from public schools, while Wu did. Wu supported shuttering the city’s gang database, while Essaibi George did not, although her campaign later indicated she wants to reform the database and clarify its purpose. Essaibi George does not back supervised drug consumption sites in the city; Wu does.
Tuesday’s winner will inherit a Police Department buffeted by scandal and controversy, from allegations of overtime fraud at an evidence warehouse to revelations that the department allowed an officer to continue to serve on the force for years after investigators determined in the mid-1990s he had more than likely molested a child.
Additionally, the last full-time commissioner, Dennis White, was fired earlier this year after decades-old domestic violence allegations against him resurfaced. White has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. Gregory Long has since served as the interim head of the department, and the next commissioner will rank among the future mayor’s most significant appointments.
A Wu win would signal significant change is coming to the Police Department, said Tom Nolan, a retired Boston police lieutenant who is now a sociology professor at Emmanuel College. He thought it was much more likely Wu would pick someone from outside the department as the next commissioner, a decision that could reshuffle the command staff and perhaps bring real cultural change to the force.
“I don’t think a convincing argument could be made that the most desirable candidate for the commissioner position is already [in] the department,” Nolan said.
Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff contributed to this report.