The surprisingly combative letter that the heads of the three unions representing the vast majority of Boston Police Department personnel wrote to Mayor Marty Walsh and Police Commissioner Bill Evans, demanding more powerful weapons and effective protective gear, was remarkable on many levels.
After more than two years of generally cordial relations, it was the most overtly public rebuke of the Walsh administration by rank-and-file police officers.
And it was unusually sweeping in that it was signed by Pat Rose, Brian Black, and Mark Parolin, the respective leaders of the unions that represent uniformed officers, plainclothes detectives, and superior officers, who most often have their own fish to fry as separate bargaining units.
But, more significantly, it revealed some real fears and deep anxieties among many police officers. It is a conversation among cops that has been going on locally since the Marathon bombings in 2013, and which expanded nationally after Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., two years ago. And it is a conversation that took on a different tone after the terror attacks in San Bernardino and Orlando.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in response to the killing of unarmed civilians by police has unnerved more than a few police officers, who blame fringe, radical elements for creating an atmosphere in which complaints about police misconduct can inspire violence against police. The attacks that left eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge dead left cops everywhere, including Boston, deeply shaken.
The threat from lone-wolf terrorists, meanwhile, leaves many Boston cops feeling outgunned and vulnerable.
In his first interview about the subject, Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, told me the letter he helped write was not meant to go public. He said it was released to the media after two weeks passed without a response from City Hall or Schroeder Plaza — police headquarters. He said rank-and-file concerns about officer safety have been ignored for 18 months.
“I didn’t want to go public with this,” Rose said. “But there is real frustration out there. My guys wanted to picket City Hall the night that Marty spoke at the DNC. I’ve got officer’s spouses calling me in tears. That’s how bad it is. We feel our legitimate concerns for officer safety are being ignored. What else can we do?”
Rose said none of this would have seen the light of day if the higher-ups had responded with even a token gesture, something as little as supplying cases of water that are needed by thirsty officers in long-running siege operations.
“Anything that would show the city has concern for officers,” he said.
Rose objected to the way the mayor and others, including civil rights and civil liberties leaders, are objecting to the idea of patrol officers walking a beat with rifles, armored up.
“That isn’t what we’re asking for,” he said. “We don’t want to look like storm troopers, walking the beat with rifles. This is not about militarizing the police. It’s about being prepared for a worse-case scenario. Right now we are woefully unprepared.”
The patrol officers, supervisors, and detectives want rifles in the trunks of some cruisers in every district, in case there is a terrorist attack or an attack on police or the public, especially by someone armed with a rifle.
Ed Davis, the former police commissioner, and Dan Linskey, the former superintendent in chief, say they wouldn’t have used some of the language in the letter, especially that which criticized President Obama and Governor Charlie Baker, but they think the union demands are reasonable. Both agreed Boston officers under attack shouldn’t have to wait for the SWAT team to arrive, that they need to have access to rifles within a few minutes.
Linskey said police officers in some Boston suburbs and university departments have better weaponry than the Boston Police Department. Rose’s daughter, a police officer in sleepy Westwood, has a rifle in her cruiser, but Boston cops do not.
Linskey said giving more officers access to protective helmets and armor-plated vests is “a no-brainer.”
“We have to give them the equipment,” Linskey said. “They’re not looking to put this in every police car. Just give them a fighting chance until SWAT gets there.”
Both Linskey and Davis echoed Rose in saying that asking for more protective gear and rifles in no way changes the BPD’s commitment to community policing and de-escalation tactics.
“They are not looking to back away from community policing, they are looking for more protection,” said Davis. “Look, you don’t want to turn this into a military force. Like everything else in life, there needs to be a balance, and there hasn’t been as far as addressing the concerns about officer safety. They are legitimate concerns.”
The letter made the startling claim that “Morale in this Department is currently at an all-time low.” That is a claim that is impossible to quantify, and it is something I’ve heard from union leaders at various times over the last 30 years.
I think it’s more accurate to say fear among Boston police officers is currently at a level not seen since the early 1970s, when self-proclaimed revolutionaries were running around shooting cops, including one of the cops for whom Boston police headquarters is named.
It is a fear that crystallized when Boston police officers joined cops in the shoot-out with the Marathon bombers in Watertown in April 2013. One of the takeaways from that terrifying night was that suburban cops and State Police were far better armed with rifles that are more accurate and effective at distance than the handguns that Boston cops carry.
Some people might think the cops are overreacting to a threat that hasn’t played out in Boston. That’s shortsighted. The cops have a point, especially about having greater access to better protective gear and rifles if some nut or terrorist opens fire. Minutes count.
This isn’t about militarizing cops. It’s about acknowledging the world, our world, has changed over the last few years.
If some lunatic or self-styled terrorist or a combination of both opens fire on the streets of Boston, and cops are pinned down, or gunned down, unable to do anything about it after pulling from their holsters a Glock that can’t hit anything more than 75 feet away with accuracy, we’ll have long, tortured conversations about why they were so unprepared for such an attack. The second-guessing will be epic.
Let’s have that conversation now, while it’s still theoretical.