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Lessons from Boston police for other cities

Boston Police headquarters in Roxbury.David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file 2011/Globe Staff

Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans goes to sleep hoping nothing will go wrong.

That includes a very specific hope that no one — police officer or citizen — comes to harm through their interaction with law enforcement.

"I don't think we've ever been so under the microscope, where relationships are as fragile as they are today," said Evans. "We've got to be ambassadors. We've got to be careful, too. It's not an easy time to be a police officer."

No, it isn't.

Police work is obviously dangerous. Challenging how it's done isn't popular with those who do it. But that needs to happen more often.

No police chief – or mayor – wants a repeat of what happened in Baltimore, after Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, was taken into police custody and later died. On the day of Gray's funeral, people took to the streets and parts of the city burned. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been harshly criticized for her response to the violence. Baltimore Police Chief Anthony Batts, also harshly criticized, has admitted "we are part of the problem."

Yet you can't chronicle the problems with police response in Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, Cleveland, or South Carolina without also acknowledging the tragic death of New York Police Officer Brian Moore. After Moore, 25, questioned a man deemed suspicious on a street in Queens, the officer was shot in the face by the suspect and died two days later.

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"Telling people they must change, when they risk their lives, is a delicate dance," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. "But some of these shootings really could have been avoided with a different kind of training," said Wexler, who is working to get police to contemplate ways to avoid violent confrontations.

Boston has not been tested to the extent of other cities. But Evans believes experiences with the Occupy movement and the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings pushed the city ahead of the curve in dealing with volatile situations, toward a model that's useful for other departments.

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He believes in community policing, not police militarization. No Tasers are used here, and the BPD resisted patrol rifles, even after the Marathon bombings led to calls for their use. Before this year's Super Bowl, the commissioner asked area college students to avoid raucous celebration and thanked them afterwards for their "championship behavior."

When Boston Police Officer John Moynihan was shot point-blank in the face last month, and the man who did it was then killed by police, law enforcement officials quickly released surveillance video of the incident to quell community unrest. After a police sergeant recently got into a showdown with a black resident in Roxbury who was videotaping his response to a 911 call, Evans apologized on behalf of the department and the sergeant apologized to the citizen.

In today's trying times, is that enough?

The political pressures are great, and they spill over even to police commissioners, like Evans, who has an excellent relationship with the mayor who appointed him.

Evans's boss, Mayor Martin J. Walsh, said Boston police are doing "a very good job" reaching out to clergy, community organizers, and youth groups.

But, said Walsh, "It's got to be more than that. We have to fundamentally look at not only how we do our policing but how we treat our young people in America."

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At the upcoming meeting of the US Conference of Mayors in San Francisco, Walsh said, he plans to propose a larger, national conversation around police policy.

"We should get together as urban mayors and really talk about what we're doing in our cities. It's time to have a dialogue with police chiefs around the country . . . about what's working and what hasn't been working," he said.

As Walsh sees it, race is one component of the discussion, but doesn't explain everything. In Baltimore, the mayor and police chief are both African-American. So are three of the police officers indicted on charges related to Gray's death. So something more than skin color is driving the hostile interaction between citizens and the officers who are supposed to protect them.

Trying to understand that is key to understanding the problem.

Police, said Evans, are "always walking on eggshells."

It's why he looks to Baltimore and says, "I hope it never happens here, but I never say 'never.' "

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.

Related:

Editorial: Baltimore prosecutor tries to force broader change

Ideas: There are no 'two Baltimores'

Dante Ramos: After shooting of officer, video keeps the peace

Alan Dershowitz: Are charges against police officers about justice or crowd control?

Mike Ross: Body cameras won't bring harmony

Jeff Jacoby: Censorship is at play in Baltimore's crisis

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