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Public safety unions are fighting Mayor Wu over vaccine mandates. But it’s a proxy war.

Protesters gathered outside the home of Mayor Michelle Wu this week.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

One of the biggest battles Michelle Wu will face in her time as mayor has already begun.

No, I am not referring to the monster storm expected to dump a foot of snow or more on the city Saturday.

I refer, instead, to her promise to overhaul policing in the city.

Wu pledged reform during her campaign for the office, and battle lines are forming.

The protests in front of her house and the press conferences by public safety unions over vaccine mandates are only partly about COVID. They are also — and perhaps mainly — an effort by cops and their firefighter allies to send a message to City Hall about union adamancy and clout, in the knowledge that this is just the first fight of many.

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Though police reform wasn’t a signature issue for most of her eight years on the City Council, Wu has promised a more transparent and accountable BPD, more connected to the community.

That agenda was more than enough to make people nervous, as the flood of police donations to Wu’s campaign rival, Annissa Essaibi George, made clear.

Many of the reforms activists and others have called for, such as curtailing overtime — so resources can be better directed — will have to be negotiated with unions in collective bargaining, so officers have an opportunity to push back. But the police unions also face the prospect of negotiating with a mayor they mostly opposed, pushing changes that have broad public support. So they’re worried, as well they should be.

For other reasons, too, these are not happy times within the Boston Police Department. The BPD has had three commissioners in less than a year, with a search now underway for a permanent successor to the current interim, Superintendent Greg Long. That has left a department with predictably lousy morale, wondering what comes next.

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Some ask whether the next commissioner should come from inside the department or outside.

But knowledgeable people I’ve spoken with believe that’s the wrong way to think about the question — if only because, aside from the highly regarded Long (who doesn’t want the permanent job) there aren’t many credible internal candidates. Maybe not any.

What does Boston need in its next commissioner? Someone who can effectively manage the department, while building trust with a diverse and engaged community. Someone who can manage the traditionalists in the ranks, while effectively implementing change. And finally, a commissioner who can navigate a politically charged job while being their own person.

That might be the most challenging list of requirements the job has ever had.

The search committee Wu appointed earlier this month seems to be hard at work. Headed by retired Supreme Judicial Court justice Geraldine Hines, it has held two community hearings seeking input from citizens on what the people of Boston want in the person who is going to police them.

High on the list have been transparency, integrity, and sensitivity. And rightly so.

After all, people have seen and read about overtime scandals. They’ve seen the resistance to oversight or any real accountability.

And that’s before we even get into the national reckoning on how police departments police people of color, a scandal that has only begun to be addressed — in Boston, or anywhere else.

For a progressive mayor, police reform is an issue where the rubber meets the road.

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Beyond a few statements about finding a commissioner who’s “aligned” with her administration’s values, Wu hasn’t tipped her hand in any specific way about what she wants. The process is playing out, albeit quickly.

Wu has pushed back the vaccine mandate twice, buying time to find a solution. But if you’re following the proxy war over mandating vaccinations, she’s also sending one important signal: that she is willing to bargain and even give a little, but isn’t backing down from what she has pledged to do. If the people outside her house expected Wu to fold, she hasn’t.

That fight won’t end when the vaccine mandate begins. Reform is coming to the BPD, and bullhorns outside Wu’s house aren’t likely to stop it.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.