“Look at this,” Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary said, gesturing toward the gift shop at Boston’s Museum of African American History.
A replica of a vintage sign dated April 24, 1851, advised “Colored people of Boston, one & all” to not converse with “watchmen,” as police were known then.
O’Leary, a tall man in a trench coat, shook his head with a bit of awe, a bit of sadness.
“It’s the same thing today,” O’Leary said.
What he meant is that police officers are still feared.
So he decided to teach his officers a bit of history.
This spring, Brookline officers took six weekly guided tours through the Museum of African American History in Beacon Hill and the West End Museum. They spent several mornings discussing cultural diversity, tolerance, and the history of policing and busing in Boston.
More than ever, the job of policing has become about communication and understanding — not just law enforcement. That’s especially true as negative perceptions of police officers persist.
“Ever since 2001, we’ve been so busy looking for terrorists, looking for criminals, preparing for the next attack,” Brookline police Deputy Superintendent Michael Gropman said. “We got away from what made us so effective. We developed an ‘us vs. them’ mentality.”
The training sessions have become another way for Brookline to address the internal strife that has pocked the department over the past few years.
Two African-American officers are suing the town, alleging discrimination. Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun claimed they were ostracized and prevented from advancing their careers when they mentioned episodes of racists remarks and slurs to O’Leary. In April, after not returning to work for more than a year, they were fired.
“My clients have repeatedly asked the department to engage in meaningful outside investigations as opposed to perceived internal fixes,” said the officers’ attorney, Hillary Schwab. “We have not been impressed with what they’ve done so far as they have not been willing to submit to a truly neutral outside investigative agency.”
A survey of the police force last year found the vast majority of those interviewed were satisfied with its climate of diversity. But people of color reported nepotism and the report mentioned an “old boy Irish network” within the department.
Anne Weaver, a Brookline resident and doctoral student studying criminal justice reform, is skeptical of the department’s efforts.
“It’s great they’ve taken officers to museums to learn about the terrible racist history of Boston,” Weaver said. “But it’s just not good enough. They need to do the work within the department to address what’s happening now instead of covering it up.”
In the department of about 130, the leadership is all-white. The Police Department says its latest class of 10 recruits in November was the most diverse ever, with four women, two Asians, and one black. The rank-and-file force includes cops of Irish, Italian, Asian, African-American, and Latino descent.
On a Friday morning, class started after half-a-dozen officers got off the overnight shift. They grabbed cups of coffee and took a seat in the community room at the station. Gropman began the morning with a conversation on whether a police force needed to reflect its community to do its job effectively. Opinions varied.
Officer Evans Alfred, a 14-year veteran who used to work in military intelligence, said he tries to learn from residents of different backgrounds. He practices Spanish with a Dominican officer on the force. There’s a gas station attendant teaching him Arabic every time he stops in, while another friend is teaching him French. In this way, he builds trust.
“I try to be diverse,” Alfred said. “To keep an open mind.”
In the second session of the day, Gerard Cox, an organization development and leadership consultant, began his talk on immigration and oppression with one group: the Irish.
“You talk about crime rate, according to statistics at the time, 1864, Boston police records reflected that of all the people arrested in that year, 75 percent were Irish-American,” Cox said. “Any idea why that figure was as high as it is?”
“The laws at the time,” answered one of the officers. “Discriminatory laws about disorderly [conduct] and things like that, and ordinances that are just laws against the poor.”
Cox said it came down to a lack of employment. So, similar to waves of immigrants who came later, the Irish took positions no one else wanted: laborers on the docks in Boston, or the mills in Waltham, Lawrence, and Lowell.
“Poverty is certainly a driver of crime,” Cox said. “People will steal a loaf of bread, they’ll do what they have to do to survive. And this was no different for the American-Irish population than it is today for the populations that you see on a regular basis.”
Officers noted an immediate similarity between the issues of undocumented immigrants who work in the fields today and Irish-Americans in the 19th century.
From the station, the class piled into vans and headed to the Museum of African American History on Joy Street. There to greet them was L’Merchie Frazier, the museum’s director of education and interpretation.
She made a point to ask them each their name before the group explored a new exhibit on Frederick Douglass, the African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman. He was also the most photographed man of the 19th century.
The police officers discussed Douglass’ portraits and read captions and listened.
“Douglass sees [photography] as an opportunity to change things,” Frazier said. “To change the minds of what people think that black people look like, to change the mythology of what people thought was a black man or a black woman.”
Next door, in the African Meeting House, she thanked the group for their service. She said a few years back, skin heads had threatened to cause trouble for those in the meeting house. Local law enforcement promised her nothing would happen to them, and nothing did.
“It’s an honor to have you in here today,” she told them.
The watchmen of old met here to discuss how to protect the community. There were also periods when the community could not trust the officers because of unjust laws the police were made to enforce, she said. This building witnessed the development of local law enforcement. “So you see,” she said, “this is your space.”
At the West End Museum, a real West Ender named Bruce Guarino walked the police officers through the exhibit about the immigrant neighborhood that Boston razed using eminent domain.
“It’s critical we expose our officers to history,” Gropman said. “To understand where they are going, they first need to know where they are and how they got there.”
Alfred, one of the Brookline officers, said he’d never heard of this tight-knit community that city officials called a slum despite its low crime rate.
“It never hurts to be reminded of the history and heritage of the community that you’re policing,” he said.
From learning of the plight of Irish immigrants to the legacy of the African-American community, and the unity of West Enders, Lieutenant Philip Harrington was most inspired by Frederick Douglass’s determination to change perceptions through portraits.
Perhaps by understanding the community people live in, he said, and why they see police officers the way they do, perceptions of police can change.
“It’s been a really nice experience,” Harrington said. “It’s opened everyone’s eyes.”Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.