The legacy of Boston’s troubled racial past was front and center Thursday night in a televised town hall forum that explored issues of fairness in the city against the backdrop of an ongoing and sometimes divisive national conversation about race and law enforcement.
A panel of local black and Latino leaders and a diverse audience explored issues of police brutality, racial profiling, and educational and economic inequities in the uninterrupted hour-long broadcast on WCVB-TV.
The discussion, and a recent poll conducted for the program, suggested that while Boston fares better than some other cities in relations between police and African-American residents, the city could do a better job on police-community relations and a number of other persistent issues.
“We hear a lot of folks say, ‘We’re not Ferguson,’ ” said state Representative Russell E. Holmes, referring to the Missouri city where white officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed black 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014.
The killing led to protests that sometimes boiled over into violence.
“We hear a lot of folks say, ‘We’re not other places in the country,’ ” Holmes continued. “We believe we’re one incident — literally one incident away — from being any other community in this country.”
The forum came just one week after a sniper in Dallas killed five police officers and wounded seven more. The massacre occurred at the close of a peaceful rally protesting the fatal police shootings earlier that week of two black men: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn.
So far, no similar incident has happened in Boston, and the new poll suggests that most residents do not expect one.
The survey, conducted on cellphones and landlines on Tuesday and Wednesday by the MassINC Polling Group, and commissioned by The Boston Foundation, found that 73 percent of residents view Boston police favorably.
About 82 percent of white residents had a positive view of Boston police, compared to 65 percent of black residents.
Another 32 percent of African-Americans and 24 percent of other minorities, though, said they do not believe that Boston police treat minorities fairly, compared to just 15 percent of white residents.
Rahsaan D. Hall, the Massachusetts ACLU’s Racial Justice Program director, said an ACLU study showed Boston police racially profile black residents. He said undergoing such treatment has built a distrust of police within the city’s African-American community.
“It comes out of the lived experience of black people in the city of Boston,” Hall said.
Michael A. Curry, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said police need to serve the community better by addressing a backlog of unsolved murders in the city, such as the killing of his own nephew.
“I think it takes the commitment of resources — which we have not done — the focus to solve those murders and get justice for those families,” Curry said.
John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, said there is room for improvement in the city’s Police Department. He added, though, that Mayor Martin J. Walsh, Police Commissioner William B. Evans, and top brass in the department are doing what they can within existing civil service laws and other restrictions to build a force that is more diverse and racially sensitive.
“With all the issues that we need to do to reform policing in the United States and in Boston, we are doing some things extremely well,” Barros said. “We dropped crime levels last year, at the same time dropping arrest rates. We are not arresting ourselves into a safer city. We are a safer city because of relationships, because of the kind of community efficacy we are building.”
Daunasia Yancey, founder and lead organizer for Black Lives Matter Boston, maintained that the police system in the United States is not working, and is flawed and racially biased.
“We need to understand that police were born out of slave patrols,” she said, “which were sent out to capture black people and return them to enslavement.”
Yancey said American society needs to develop a different model for safeguarding the public.