After George Floyd was killed in police custody in 2020, the wave of protests that began in the nation’s urban centers soon made their way to the suburbs, including the liberal enclaves around Boston where President Biden would go on to receive more than 75 percent of the vote that November.
More than 1,000 people marched through Cambridge. Newton high school students led hundreds of marchers down Commonwealth Avenue. Protesters, police and political leaders among them, knelt silently in Somerville’s Davis Square.
But those liberal-minded communities, while redoubling their commitments to community policing and showing some support for broader reforms, have not met the demand for sharp reductions in police budgets.
That has disappointed activists who believed such progressive bastions were where the movement that Floyd’s death inspired, with its calls for enhanced civilian oversight and reduced police spending, seemed most likely to succeed.
Mayors and chiefs of police in those suburban cities and towns said they’ve made significant changes to policing since that summer, particularly by reinforcing a focus on community policing, and are implementing further reforms gradually to make sure they are effective and have public support. Some have rejected systemic overhaul outright.
“I’ve never believed in defunding our police department,” Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said. At the same time, “I’ve known how important it is to support 21st-century community policing here in Newton,” she said.
Activists who organized the 2020 protests and have spent much of the past two years lobbying their local governments are frustrated with the lack of action on policy changes that, in their view, have strong majority backing and will make communities safer.
That such liberal strongholds would be cautious over calls for far-reaching policing reform raises broader questions about whether the systemic changes activists envisioned after Floyd’s death are possible anywhere in the country, especially as opinion polls show declining support across demographic lines for such measures.
“This is in some ways the story of race in America,” said Tatishe Nteta, a University of Massachusetts Amherst political scientist. “There are these periods of time in which there is a lot of attention on issues which pertain to people of color and you see mobilization by, in particular, whites to embrace these particular policies and over time . . . you see a decrease in support.”
Newton’s current $24.8 million police budget is the highest in city history. In progressive-minded Cambridge, the $73.5 million police budget approved this summer represents a 20 percent increase since the 2020 fiscal year.
“Every time I’ve moved to not increase the budget, I didn’t even propose a real cut, just keeping it flat, and the vote fails every time eight to one,” said Cambridge City Councilor Quinton Zondervan, a democratic socialist. “We’re not as left wing as we think we are, apparently.”
Indeed, it’s inflation, not socialist city councilors, that has contributed most to cutting local police budgets in the last few years.
To be sure, activists have secured some victories. In Somerville, the city council cut the police budget by 8 percent in 2020 and this summer eliminated a $637,000 increase to the mayor’s proposed police budget, a move widely hailed by activists. The money would have primarily funded body cameras for officers, although councilors decided to craft a policy for their use before they approved the money.
Yet Somerville’s well-organized advocates, many of whom say they want to abolish the police, want far deeper cuts.
In Cambridge, the city council included $2.9 million in its latest budget to create a community safety department, a six-person staff who would respond to problems, like mental health emergencies, in lieu of the police.
While it seemed like a major victory, the reaction among activists was mixed. A group of Black women, frustrated by the slow pace of progress, had already organized an alternative response program called Cambridge HEART, with a full staff who have each undergone more than 600 hours of training for responding to domestic violence and mental health incidents, among other situations.
That group has offered to work with the city and is negotiating with the city manager over its role, according to Stephanie Guirand, a founder.
“Why fund two things that do the same thing?” she said.
In other Democratic strongholds in Boston’s suburbs, alternatives to traditional policing have not been implemented or are proceeding slowly. Activists point out that those models, in which some emergency calls are directed to unarmed mental health professionals or social workers rather than police, are up and running in Amherst and a recent study showed a similar pilot program in Denver reduced crime and saved money.
In Somerville, where activists are clamoring for further change, Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said she is open to discussions about the police budget and supports changing the response to mental health calls, including dispatching unarmed emergency responders.
“Does it belong within police? Does it belong outside of police? And that’s a worthwhile discussion to have,” she said. “This is really important, and we need to be able to do it right, and we are still collecting the data and having the community meetings.”
Ballantyne also wants to see the results of a police staffing and operations study she commissioned before making major changes, she said.
Activists say their patience is wearing thin.
“It is frustrating to see our leadership not following through with the will of the folks who have been engaging with the political system,” said Willie Burnley Jr., who was elected to the Somerville City Council last year after being an organizer for Defund Somerville PD. Ambitious changes are “what I think everyone outside of Somerville expects of Somerville.”
City leaders, however, said they’ve made considerable changes to policing since the 2020 protests. Communities have almost universally adopted eight basic police reforms known as “8 Can’t Wait,” which include banning choke holds, requiring warnings before use of deadly force, and banning shooting at moving vehicles.
Cambridge, Newton, and Arlington have named new police chiefs since 2020 who say they’re committed to making their departments better.
“Bias in policing is a very serious issue, and it doesn’t solve anything if we don’t talk about it,” said Julie Flaherty, who became police chief in Arlington in early 2020.
Many of Boston’s progressive suburbs, like Arlington, have required officers to undergo extensive training in deescalation strategies, implicit bias, and mental health, and have been working to hire more women and people of color.
“We’re in a good place right now,” said Newton’s police chief, John F. Carmichael Jr. “We’re doing a lot of things that are setting us in the right direction as far as 21st-century policing.”
Newton and Somerville have mental health clinicians working in their police departments and have been working with the state’s new police oversight commission on certifying their officers, mayors and chiefs say.
“It’s actually surprised me that we’ve come this far this fast,” said Andreae Downs, a Newton city councilor who leads a committee that oversees the police.
Still, reform advocates point to police misconduct they say shows the need for urgent change.
In May, a former Somerville police officer admitted he pepper-sprayed a handcuffed suspect at point-blank range in 2020, and in August, a Black man filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Town of Arlington for his forceful detention last year by four white police officers, which an outside investigator determined was unjustified.
Still, even in communities where support for the social justice protests ran high, the willingness to change the status quo may be limited. Recent surveys have shown that support for cutting police funding has declined sharply.
“There was a huge surge at the beginning right after George Floyd’s murder and that sustained for a little while, but it’s been slowly kind of decreasing . . . especially among white and wealthy folks,” said Megan Fieleke, a Defund Newton PD organizer.
Ballantyne said she’s heard from people who feel excluded by the city’s activist class, pointing to a letter from public housing residents requesting an expanded police presence.
“Those voices that are loudest are not necessarily representative of all the voices,” she said.
But Burnley, the Somerville city councilor, said most residents, especially those most likely to interact with the police, want to see fundamental change.
“It will happen in Somerville,” he said. “We cannot lose faith because of the slowness of progress that progress is not possible.”