When hundreds of teenagers broke out in violence in multiple incidents late last month, some of those targeted were the police officers who arrived on the scenes. In one case, an officer was punched in the chest while trying to break up a fight. He wrote in his report that he was able to subdue and handcuff the teenager, “without further incident.”
In another situation, an officer attempting to separate a crowd was jostled to the ground by teenagers who then punched and stomped on him. Other officers came to his rescue and, according to a police report, used nonviolent de-escalation techniques to place those involved in handcuffs. Again, without further incident.
In another city, and perhaps at another time in Boston, the police officers who struggled to control the unruly crowds might have responded with much more force. But despite the chaotic scenes, there have been no complaints of excessive force during the melees of that weekend: not a single shot was fired, nor did police appear to use tasers or pepper spray. One officer said in a report that he was prepared to use pepper spray, but that a new city ordinance limiting its use prevented him from doing so.
Police Commissioner Michael Cox praised the officers for their “restraint” and “professional behavior” in the face of several attacks.
And, criminal justice analysts and community leaders said the incidents also demonstrate how police need to strike a balancing act in an era of reform, de-escalating violent incidents while still protecting themselves during potentially dangerous situations.
Still the outbreaks of youth violence, and the police response to them, has provoked an animated debate among advocates and community leaders over just where that balancing point should be. Even some longtime critics of the Boston force say officers should be able to assert more authority in such situations, while also cautioning that the department has to be vigilant in ensuring it responds to white and Black and brown kids equally.
Brother Donnell Singleton, who has worked with at-risk youth in Boston for years, thought the police response was “as it should be.”
“It wasn’t over the top; it wasn’t too much, it wasn’t too little,” he said.
His larger concern, he said, is why the crowds of kids were so unruly.
“Why are so many youths acting a fool? Probably because there’s not enough programming for them,” he added.
In all, police estimated more than 300 teenagers were part of two large crowds outside movie theaters in South Bay and by the Boston Common on Sunday, Aug. 27. Thirteen were arrested and referred to the juvenile justice system. Police also responded to an unruly crowd at a feast in the North End on Saturday, Aug. 26., and arrested five juveniles there.
At-Large City Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said she hoped the incidents would not trigger calls for more punitive responses that could harm Black and brown youths. The city, she said, must do a better job making sure there are gathering spaces for youths that are safe and “can receive their joy.”
An underlying factor, Louijeune said, is that many young people are still grappling with mental health issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Normalcy hasn’t really regained its footing among our young people,” she said.
Another at-large city councilor, Michael Flaherty, had a different take, saying, “Frankly, I would have liked to see more arrests — particularly for those perpetrating the violence.”
But overall, he thought police “did a good job, particularly given they are understaffed and were outnumbered by hundreds.”
Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, criticized a city ordinance limiting the use of pepper spray, saying it is “unrealistic,” and “definitely handcuffing the officers.” He pointed to an officer’s inability to use the spray even while being attacked, and said the department brass should give clear and concise direction that allows for the use of pepper spray, or otherwise just take the tool away.
The ordinance, signed into law in 2021, limits law enforcement’s use of chemical agents such as tear gas and projectiles such as sponge rounds: first, an on-scene police supervisor must find there is no alternative, and then must give two separate warnings to the crowd at least two minutes apart.
“The officers are totally confused and intimidated by the ordinance,” Calderone said.
Peter Moskos, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and former Baltimore police officer, said trying to effectively subdue violent offenders without using too much force can be tricky, particularly in a reform era when police conduct, especially toward children of color, is under intense scrutiny. Law enforcement need clear direction from police and city leadership on how to respond, and then officials need to be willing to back up the rank and file as they adhere to those instructions.
“By being upfront and being transparent, you avoid a lot of problems,” he said, “otherwise it just seems like the cops are going in and beating up kids.
“Political leadership needs to decide: Do you want to have hundreds of kids gathering? And if not, what are you gonna do about it?” he added. “But it can’t just be: Call 911 and have cops show up, outnumbered. Then what are they supposed to do?”
The Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, founder and director of the Ella J. Baker House, called specifically on officials at City Hall to develop “a coherent strategy that has the support of the community most adversely affected by the violence.”
“The Boston Police Department has done the best they can possibly do given the political constraints that are imposed upon them by City Hall,” he added.
Jamarhl Crawford, an outspoken activist who served on the city’s police reform task force in 2020, argued that several white youth who were involved in the disturbance in the North End were handled “with kid gloves,” compared with the police response at movie theaters at South Bay and Boston Common “or any other areas where it’s predominantly ... Black and Latino.”
However, he acknowledged there was no easy way to respond to the attacks given the size of the crowds, and said preventing future brawls would likely require an accountability-focused response that goes beyond police.
“Something has to be done,” he said. “This is a very difficult situation, and it’s going to take all hands on deck.”
In a letter sent out to South Bay Center retailers last week, property management company EDENS indicated it had boosted security measures and was working with Boston police and the mayor’s office to keep patrons safe.
“Across the city, we have witnessed large groups of our young people engage in criminal activity and violence — punching, kicking, and putting chokeholds on Boston police officers,” Boston Council President Ed Flynn said in a statement. “It is never okay to assault a police officer.”
Criminal justice analysts noted, too, that although the crowds were dispersed in Boston with no serious injuries reported, it can take just one incident to escalate a situation and lead to further violence.
“You’re dealing with individual people, [who are] dealing with individual people, so you never want to say it can never happen,” Moskos said. “But certainly with training, accountability, transparency, you can greatly lessen the odds.”