Opinion

the podium | Anthony A. Braga

Why Boston’s protests to Ferguson remained largely peaceful

Protests in Boston remained largely peaceful between demonstrators and police.
Barry Chin/Globe staff
Protests in Boston remained largely peaceful between demonstrators and police.

Boston did not experience violent protests after a grand jury in Ferguson, Mo., decided not to indict a white police officer on any criminal charges stemming from a tragic shooting of an unarmed black man this past summer. Emotional, but largely peaceful, protests of the decision — and the broader problem of officer-involved shootings of black men — occurred throughout the city.

This calm, however, was no surprise. Even when Boston Police officers have been directly involved in use-of-force incidents, our neighborhoods did not erupt in violent behavior or extensive property damage. Why?

The Boston Police Department has become adept at managing protests in the city, as evidenced by its peaceful and effective handling of the Occupy movement and the current Ferguson decision protests. Proper crowd management — during, for example, sports championships, festivals, or demonstrations — while also protecting citizens’ constitutional rights can be achieved through policy development, training, and careful planning.

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But in Boston, the lack of violence and destruction comes from something more. It is largely due to an unusual reservoir of trust developed between the police and the city’s communities of color. Ongoing conversations with community leaders, especially with a loosely allied group of activist black clergy known as the Ten Point Coalition, about race and policing in Boston seem to be effective in relieving the pent-up frustration experienced in minority communities in other US cities.

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Over the past three decades, the Boston Police Department has gone through a period of significant change and innovation. In what is a relatively short historical time frame, officers have reconsidered their fundamental mission, the nature of core strategies of policing, and the character of their relationships with the communities that they serve. Importantly, a neighborhood policing plan was implemented, and beat-level officers were trained in the methods of community and problem-oriented policing.

While these changes were important in creating an environment where the police could collaborate with the community, residents of Boston’s poor minority neighborhoods remained wary of and dissatisfied with a police department that had a long history of abusive and unfair treatment. Strong working partnerships with local community church leaders were essential for establishing much needed community and political support for innovative police crime prevention efforts. By including the ministers in their community policing efforts, the Boston Police developed a mechanism for transparency and accountability that was very desirable to Boston’s minority community.

Over the years, the Ten Point ministers, such as Reverend Jeffrey Brown, Reverend Ray Hammond, and Reverend Eugene Rivers, have helped the Boston Police manage several volatile events ranging from the accidental death of a 75-year-old retired black minister who suffered a fatal heart attack after a botched drug raid to the more recent arrest of a young black man at Roxbury Community College that, at first blush, appeared to involve excessive force.

When concerning incidents occur, the Boston Police immediately notify the clergy and other community leaders to explain their position on what transpired. The ministers demand that the police department take responsibility for its actions — investigate incidents thoroughly and hold those involved accountable. As it becomes clear that the Boston Police have accepted this responsibility, the ministers communicate to the community that the police are responding appropriately. This, in turn, prevents these situations from becoming racially explosive and provides the police with the continued political support they need to work effectively in inner-city neighborhoods.

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Police departments acquire trust when community partners support appropriate police tactics and publicly criticize inappropriate police actions. Through their collaboration with the ministers — which has expanded to include the NAACP and other important partners — the Boston Police discovered a system whereby they were accountable to the community. And embracing accountability to the community has become a great asset to the police.

Policing urban communities is very complicated and, given this complexity, it seems likely that Boston will experience future racially-charged incidents. However, the city is well positioned to avoid riots through strong community partnerships and open communication lines. Clearly, Boston is not Ferguson.

Anthony A. Braga is a criminology professor at Rutgers University and a senior research fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. Braga previously served as chief policy adviser to Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis between 2007 and 2013.