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Recent violence involving Boston police could complicate Michelle Wu’s plans to reform the department

Mayor-elect Michelle Wu spoke to reporters Wednesday at Boston City Hall.
Mayor-elect Michelle Wu spoke to reporters Wednesday at Boston City Hall.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

A recent pair of confrontations that left two suspects dead and sent four Boston police officers to the hospital could further complicate one of the thorniest policy problems Mayor-elect Michelle Wu will face after being sworn in next week: Making good on her campaign pledge to substantially overhaul the city’s approach to policing.

On the campaign trail, Wu was a vocal supporter of deep and systemic reform for the police. Among her plans, and one that set her apart from some of her rivals, was her intention of using collective bargaining for the police union contracts as a means to realize changes in the scandal-plagued department.

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But now, even before the start of her historic tenure in City Hall’s fifth floor corner office, she must contend with questions and concerns raised by the two violent episodes that both ended with police fatally shooting suspects and shook the nation’s oldest police force.

During a Wednesday news conference, Wu, who also will select the next police commissioner, was peppered with questions about the recent spate of violence, including one inquiry that asked if she still supported allocating money away from police, a stance she took during the campaign. She replied by saying her administration plans to bolster resources for a pilot program that would provide an alternative response — meaning social workers or clinicians — to calls that require mental health expertise.

“The plan was never to remove needed resources but to increase our investments in public safety and health together,” she said.

“This has been a very difficult week in the city of Boston,” Wu acknowledged, “and we all need to ensure that we are recognizing the strain and the stress and trauma that every single one of our community members has been experiencing, including our officers.”

On Saturday, police fatally shot a man after he allegedly stabbed one officer in the neck inside a residence in Dorchester. The officer was later released from the hospital. On Tuesday afternoon, three Boston officers were shot and police killed a suspect in a lengthy standoff at a house on Ferndale Street in Dorchester that ended after the suspect unexpectedly opened fire at officers, police said. In between those incidents, police issued a full call-up for Sunday, according to one police supervisor, meaning all available and able officers were called to work, ahead of chaotic clashes between right-wing demonstrators and counterprotesters on Boston Common.

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In a statement, Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said his union was “angered and outraged” by the violence in recent days.

“In a span of 72 hours, multiple police officers end up in the hospital after being stabbed or shot in two separate incidents,” he said. “Over the weekend, we had protesters throwing bricks, spewing obscenities, and spraying chemicals at officers.”

“The complete and utter disrespect and disregard for the safety of our officers has never been higher and the senseless violence needs to end,” he said.

The violent episodes add to an already turbulent situation that will greet Wu when she’s sworn in on Tuesday. She 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.

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Boston police arrived at Boston Common, where protests and counterprotests were held on Sunday.
Boston police arrived at Boston Common, where protests and counterprotests were held on Sunday. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Additionally, the last full-time commissioner, Dennis White, was fired earlier this year after decades-old domestic violence allegations against him resurfaced. White repeatedly denied wrongdoing; Gregory Long has since served as the interim head of the department. Wu has pledged a national search for the next commissioner, who will rank among the future mayor’s most significant appointments. Who will spearhead such a search has yet to be announced.

During the mayoral race, Wu was not the preferred candidate among the police rank and file, according to an analysis of campaign donations. That would be Annissa Essaibi George, whom Wu defeated in the general election.

“The cops are not happy to see her as mayor-elect and I think that shows,” said Tom Nolan, a former Boston police lieutenant who now teaches sociology at Emmanuel College. “I hope she stands her ground and remains committed to the reform process.”

Given that collective bargaining will likely play a large role in any department reforms, Nolan said he thought police unions were intentionally and deliberately trying to control the narrative around the recent violent incidents to strengthen their hand in dealing with the new mayor, saying the labor groups were taking advantage of “an unfortunate situation where police have been subjected to violence.” He added that his comments were not intended to diminish the violence against police.

“They are attempting to craft this narrative so they can position themselves in the role of victim and negotiate contracts with the incoming administration,” said Nolan, who called it a “tried and true tactic.”

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The BPPA did not respond to Nolan’s assertion on Wednesday.

Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, hoped that the violence would not complicate needed reform. The incidents, he said, may speak to the need for some changes to better protect officers, such as additional training or equipment, but he did not think that should preclude the city from “trying to get the department to be more transparent and hold officers more accountable.”

“Politically, of course . . . it’s going to be more difficult now,” said McDevitt.

Some police unions in the country are working with police leadership on reform initiatives, but Boston, like other major East Coast cities, does not have a history of that, he said.

“There’s lots of good officers trying to do their job,” McDevitt said. “What the mayor is trying to do is to make a culture and atmosphere where they can succeed.”

McDevitt also emphasized that policing is a dangerous job.

“There are things we should be doing to try to reduce the danger for the officers on the street,” he said. “They deserve that.”

Christine Cole, executive director of the Crime and Justice Institute in Boston, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the criminal and juvenile justice system, said she hoped the bloodshed would not compromise Wu’s efforts toward reform or the city’s willingness to engage on that topic. One of the questions underpinning the current conversation, according to Cole: Can officer safety and police reform be compatible?

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“I say yes,” she said.

The contracts for Boston’s four main police unions expired in the summer of 2020. The contracts include overtime rules and disciplinary procedures for officers, among a host of other stipulations.

According to her mayoral campaign website, Wu said she will deliver “structural changes that go beyond announcements or goals, and instead are embedded in the collective bargaining agreements with the City.”

“It’s time to get serious about structural changes to the BPD with a contract that gets to the root of the cultural and systemic reforms we need,” Wu said on the site.

But experts such as McDevitt acknowledged that collective bargaining may lead to a stalemate between unions and a mayoral administration.

“Sometimes you’re going to end up having to go to court,” he said.

Brenda Bond-Fortier, a Suffolk University professor who recently wrote a book about police reform, said that in order for reform through union negotiating to work, both sides have to identify their shared goals. If they don’t have them, that should be the first order of business, she said. Wu’s handling of policing will be a “critical” aspect of her mayoralty, Bond-Fortier said.

“It’s one of the most important policy arenas of any local government,” she said.


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.