For the Brookline Police Department, tumult in the leadership ranks has become a constant in recent years.
Hemmed in on multiple sides by the city of Boston, this tony community with little violent crime and a progressive reputation currently counts multiple vacancies among its police brass. Last week brought more upheaval, with acting chief Mark Morgan going on medical leave and a new acting chief, its fourth top cop in as many years, appointed by the Select Board.
As of early last week, there were other leadership vacancies: Morgan’s leave meant there was no superintendent at present, the organization’s No. 2 post, and there were also at least two vacancies for deputy superintendents. Additionally, the Select Board’s decision to elevate Deputy Superintendent Richard Allen to acting chief means that his old post, overseeing the department’s patrol operation, is temporarily vacant, according to the Brookline Police Association. (Brookline’s town administrator said on Friday he had filled at least one of the deputy superintendent posts, but it was not immediately clear which one.)
The instability at the top of the department is unfurling amid a push by some in town to reimagine its approach to policing, efforts that have badly frayed the relationship between Brookline police and authorities running this town of roughly 63,000 people. A police union representing Brookline officers says the tenor of the town’s reform discussion — which in 2021 included two separate panels issuing reports on the subject — amount to a rebuke of the department’s work, and that the town’s struggle to fill leadership posts is a direct result.
Advocates for overhauling the town’s Police Department, on the other hand, say a fundamental re-think of how police operate is necessary.
The policing debate raging in Brookline is a microcosm of the tensions playing out across the country, illustrating how fraught the police reform enterprise is, even as communities clamor for change. As local governments, prodded by social justice protests after the 2020 police-killing of George Floyd, look to enact police reforms, their efforts are sparking frictions with local police officials and unions.
Detective Michael Keaveney, the president of the Brookline Police Association, the union that represents Brookline officers, said the instability at the top of the department shows that the chief’s job has effectively become a poisoned chalice, a politically fraught quagmire where town officials do not support their officers and micromanage the day-to-day operations of the force.
Police reformers in town disagree. For Select Board member Raul Fernandez, the chief’s vacancy is an opportunity for Brookline to “find someone to lead this department who matches the ideals and aspirations of the community.” The town has engaged with a search firm. Fernandez and other town leaders also say filling the other department vacancies in a permanent way should wait until a new permanent chief is in place. The new chief, they argue, should be allowed to build his or her own team.
“The community in Brookline wants a police department that is limited with respect to its scope as well as its powers,” said Fernandez.
Brookline police is not alone in weathering leadership uncertainty amid a reform push. Neighboring Boston, for instance, has been without a permanent police commissioner for months. During that time, a new police watchdog for the city ramped up and is currently reviewing and investigating cases.
In Brookline, Morgan had served as interim head of the department since the summer of 2020, when Andrew Lipson abruptly resigned from the post. News of that move came weeks after a controversy erupted in town over how law enforcement handled a demonstration protesting racial injustice. Because of a miscommunication, Norfolk County sheriff’s deputies clad in riot gear were deployed along the march route. Critics thought their presence was unnecessarily confrontational.
The town has been without a permanent chief since Lipson’s resignation. After leaving the chief post, Lipson, a Brookline native, stayed on in the department as a deputy superintendent; he left that position last month to work in law enforcement in New Hampshire. He was the fifth deputy superintendent to leave the department in 2021, according to Keaveney.
Currently, the department has 117 sworn officers, down from 130 in January 2019, and below the 135 officers that the department’s budget allows, a department spokesman said in an e-mail.
Town officials hope to name a new, permanent head of the department by springtime. Whoever it is will likely carry out town-mandated reforms. Some changes have already occurred. Last year, the Select Board eliminated all of Brookline’s school resource officer positions and also a “walk and talk” unit that patrolled public housing complexes in the town.
More changes hover on the horizon. Town officials said they are exploring a home rule petition that would see the town abandon the civil service exam system that dictates rank-and-file hiring and promotions in the Police Department.
The ongoing tension between police and electeds most recently has meant Keaveney, a 17-year veteran of the force, going on the offensive against with the town’s leadership, including members of its select board, blasting out e-mail missives to a public safety subcommittee and other residents in December.
“There can be no doubt that working as a police Chief in this environment is untenable,” he said in one e-mail.
“The Select Board has fostered hostile working conditions and undermined the authority of the Chief of Police at every turn,” he added.
Morgan’s departure, he said, showed that “an experienced and knowledgeable police expert is saying enough is enough and removing themselves from this equation of this incompetent Town ‘leadership.’”
Keaveney is not alone in expressing concern over vacancies in the department.
Select Board member Bernard Greene worries that “breaks in the chain of command impede BPD’s ability to carry out managerial responsibilities that directly or indirectly relate to public safety.” Vacancies on the force mean officers are overworked with some performing the duties of management even though they lack the authority, credibility, or effectiveness of managers, he said in a recent statement.
In a recent phone interview, Heather Hamilton, the Select Board chair, said she is concerned that the department is losing people “left and right, and that’s putting a lot of stress on already stressed junior officers.”
Just last week, the Select Board voted to temporarily delegate its promotional authority to Town Administrator Melvin Kleckner in order to expedite police promotions. On Friday, Kleckner said he approved three promotions in the department — one for deputy superintendent, one for lieutenant, and one for sergeant.
The Brookline Police Association has been without a contract for a year-and-a-half, and Keaveney argues that Brookline police pay is considerably lower than nearby communities. According to a 2021 survey of the Police Department, 86 percent of respondents said morale is poor, with some officers citing a “lack of support from town leadership” as a driving factor for the bad atmosphere, according to a report summarizing the survey results.
“It’s really bad, bad, bad,” said Keaveney during a recent phone interview.
But Bonnie Bastien, who served on a town task force charged with reimagining police, is among those who say BPD has not done itself any favors. When it came time to discuss changing public safety systems locally, the task force was met with “enormous defensiveness” from Brookline police, she said.
“How can any forward movement happen when people can’t even say the word ‘racism?’” Bastien asked.
Indeed, discrimination within public safety agencies in Brookline, where 70 percent of residents are white, has made news in recent years. Any discussion of that topic seems to be framed by former town firefighter Gerald Alston’s long battle against town leadership, which finally concluded with an $11 million settlement approved by Town Meeting last year. The state’s Supreme Judicial Court had previously ruled that Alston, who is Black, was fired illegally and supported his claim of racial discrimination.
Additionally, in 2018, two former police officers who alleged racial discrimination in Brookline Police Department reached six-figure settlements with the town.
In 2020, a Black man from Boston filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the town, its police force, and three officers, alleging that police racially profiled him, made racist jokes at his expense, and wrongfully arrested him. The parties eventually reached an out-of-court settlement last year.
Last summer, a female officer sued the Police Department, alleging gender discrimination and retaliation. That case is still ongoing, according to state records.
Bastien hopes there are more significant changes to come; she would like to see Brookline move “our culture and communities toward not needing an armed police force.” She wants to see funds rerouted from police toward social services that could prevent “some of the things that police are called to address,” such as mental health crises.
Despite the intensity of the police reform fight in town, there is little street violence in Brookline, a 6.75-square-mile swath where the median household income is $117,000 and more than 80 percent of residents older than 25 hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Brookline made it through 2021 without a single homicide or shooting.
For the next permanent chief, Hamilton, the Select Board chair, said she wants a strong communicator, a person who “has the trust of most residents in Brookline [who] understands how some very well-intentioned programs or actions can be perceived as hostile or unwelcome.”
“It’s really, really hard to find somebody who can withstand public criticism and do a very good job,”' she said. “It’s almost become a unicorn.”
Danny McDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.