A three-word name change to a Boston City Council committee might seem like a meaningless, procedural difference — but don’t tell that to Councilor Andrea Campbell.
When Campbell took over the Public Safety Committee earlier this year, she sought to change its name and, with that, its scope. It’s now called the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee — an effort, she said, to include municipal government in key national discussions about police-community relations and mass incarceration.
It’s a marked shift for the committee, which focused almost solely on law enforcement matters under its former chairman, 18-year council veteran Stephen J. Murphy, who lost his reelection race last year.
“When I sat down with Council President [Michelle] Wu, I said, ‘I’m not interested in public safety if it merely is about how the city sends out its resources, and how the city disperses its police, its fire [department], its EMS,” Campbell said. “I care deeply about criminal justice reform. We’re having these conversations at the county level, at the state level, the federal level, but the city wasn’t involved.”
Under Murphy, now a candidate for Suffolk County register of deeds, the Public Safety Committee had convened at least 18 times since January 2014. According to a review of those meetings’ agendas conducted last year, none of the hearings addressed urban violence, but instead focused on topics like firefighter safety, public awareness of sex offenders, and the now-defunct mounted police unit. Murphy did not respond to multiple e-mail and phone requests for comment for this story.
Campbell took over the committee in February 2016, and in the limited number of meetings so far, she has reviewed youth development programs and police body cameras and partnered with Suffolk County Sheriff Steven W. Tompkins on efforts to reduce recidivism. In her work regarding body cameras, Campbell said she also organized community meetings to keep residents informed about the city’s body cameras pilot program.
Last week, she praised a deal between the city and the Police Department’s largest union to outfit up to 100 patrol officers with cameras as soon as next month.
Campbell’s new committee’s updated mission statement — which now relegates the oversight of law enforcement branches to its final sentence — states successful “resident-driven efforts to prevent crime” and “reintegration and reentry of residents formerly incarcerated” as goals.
“The vast majority of these men and women who are leaving these institutions, these prisons, these houses of correction, are coming back to Boston,” Campbell said. “By changing the language of the committee, by adding the criminal justice piece, it’s about redefining it.”
There are 14 Boston City Council committees, each of which has specific jurisdiction, such as education, enviroment, or health. The city councilor in charge of each committee can pick which related issues to tackle in hearings before possibly submitting matters to the entire council for consideration.
In a recent interview, Campbell said she was initially unsure about her assignment to the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee, but considering her own story, she now sees it as a perfect fit.
After losing both parents at a young age, spending time in the foster care system, and seeing several family members incarcerated, including a twin brother who died in state custody, Campbell graduated from Boston Latin School, Princeton, and eventually the UCLA Law School.
Campbell worked for then-governor Deval Patrick before settling in Mattapan and beginning her political career. In November, she defeated longtime councilor Charles C. Yancey and was elected to represent District 4, which includes Mattapan and parts of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale.
Tompkins, the sheriff, said these experiences make Campbell a “tireless advocate” on issues of incarceration, prison reform, and addiction recovery.
“Her personal experiences both in navigating the prison system on behalf of a member of her own family and also as a legal professional, put her in the unique position in which she truly understands the needs of incarcerated and returning citizens,” Tompkins said in a statement.
It is too early to determine whether Campbell’s goal of reshaping Boston’s approach to criminal justice will result in major policy changes, but the councilor has set a marker. Campbell said she hopes funding can be included in next year’s city budget for investment in youth development programs to reduce crime.
By her own admission, obtaining results will be critically important. In her campaign against Yancey, Campbell characterized herself as someone uniquely positioned to connect residents to power structures and to broker key policy wins.
“Every single day I do this work I think about my twin brother,” Campbell said. “I think about what his life outcome might have been if he had gone to better schools, if he had better opportunities — had his choices not been constrained by his race and gender.”
Critical to achieving results will be collaborating with Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who recently added an office dedicated to reincorporating formerly incarcerated citizens into society. In June, Walsh announced a $300,000 addition to the fiscal year budget to support the new office.
“By giving individuals a second chance to obtain affordable housing, steady jobs, and support with family and community reunification, we can improve our reentry outcomes, stem some of the violence on our streets, and create stronger and healthier neighborhoods,” Walsh said.
Campbell, in her maiden speech as a city councilor in February, focused on similar issues. She highlighted the importance of second chances, community support, and economic opportunities before taking her seat to a standing ovation.
Now will come the hard part: making that change happen.
Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH