United States | February 28, 2017 at 9:00 am

Does Boston Have the Best Police? A Case Study in Police-Community Relations

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In the past four years, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray have become household names after they were killed by police. Their deaths helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement and initiated a conversation about the relationships between police and communities of color—in particular, black communities. As other cities have seen major protests, Boston has remained relatively quiet and has even been praised for its strong community-police relations.

Community Point of View

While Boston has been quiet, it still has its own history of police mistreatment of minorities. In 1980, an unarmed teenager named Levi Hart was killed after a confrontation with Boston police. Police stated that Hart grabbed an officer’s gun and was killed when it was accidentally discharged. However, this story did not explain the autopsy results, which found a skull fracture caused by a blunt object. This was just one of nine police-involved shootings between 1970 and 1991, eight of which were fatal.

“I just don’t see it. He’s only 14 years old. I mean, what’s he going to try, struggling with police? I just don’t see it,” Hart’s brother explained to the Boston Globe while crying. The black community in Boston was similarly outraged by both Hart’s death and the lack of transparency.

This trend has only worsened. Between January 2013 and April 2016, 40 people had been fatally shot by police in Massachusetts. Between January 2013 and September 2016, the Boston Police Department was responsible for seven deaths.

One of the victims was Ross Batista, a 38 year-old black man who allegedly shot at officers and was killed when officers responded by shooting back. Batista’s family echoed the distress of Hart’s brother. “He was executed,” Batista’s father told the Boston Globe. “There was no chance for him to survive those wounds.” His mother added, “No police came to my door to let me know what’s going on. Why? Why? They kill my son while I’ve been sleeping, and they didn’t tell me.”

Only 65 percent of black residents of Boston have a positive view of the police, compared to 82 percent of white residents. Even the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has recognized these tense relations when it ruled that running from the police should not be used against black suspects because they might have fled just “to avoid the recurring indignity of being racially profiled.”

The data and stories show that Boston has a long record of negative interactions between police and residents, and that the BPD’s community engagement programs have not resulted in more trust among the people they serve.

Police Outreach: Getting to Know Communities

These broken relationships are not from a lack of trying. BPD has created new programs to engage with residents and increase accountability. For one, they established the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, an independent group that increases accountability by reviewing complaints and randomly-chosen cases. However, most people—109 out of 116—do not actually appeal their cases to the panel because of misinformation or negative experiences during the request process. Even when the panel receives an appeal, it can take two years to process, which is in part because of the panel’s extremely limited power.

BPD also created Neighborhood Advisory Councils, which are groups of community members who design local police initiatives. These groups have had some success; the one in Dorchester created the Safe Neighborhood Initiative, in which Assistant District Attorneys work with residents to provide them with resources in an effort to deter crime. In 1994, then-Attorney General Janet Reno said that “I haven’t seen any community in the country that involved so many different disciplines—hospital workers, police, community activists, social services—as Dorchester.”

In addition, BPD created a group dedicated to increasing dialogue between the police and residents, which gives feedback on instances of officer-involved shootings and includes members of the police department, members of community groups like the NAACP, and other community leaders.

These community groups value the BPD’s communication and outreach, according to Nia Evans, Executive Director of the Boston NAACP. In an interview with the HPR, Evans expressed her appreciation that the police commissioner was thoughtful in communicating with organizations like hers. Soon after crises like the one in Roslindale, BPD has called the NAACP explaining what happened, and has even shown videos of the situation that the NAACP can then use to fact check the officer reports.

In addition to these programs, the BPD has more informal ways of involving the communities. They engage with youth in sports games and talent shows, visit members of the community on special occasions, and go on neighborhood walks to meet residents.

They also developed a body camera pilot program in conjunction with the ACLU and the Boston Police Camera Action Team, a group dedicated to making body cameras a standard tool for the BPD. It will start out as a voluntary, six-month test for up to 100 officers, but Evans hopes it will lead to a bigger, permanent program.

In an interview with the HPR, BPCAT co-founder Segun Idowu praised BPD for working with the community and implementing the majority of their policy recommendations. In particular, the BPD led the nation in banning the use of facial recognition software, which is important to maintain citizens’ privacy.

Room for Improvement

The BPD is successful in working with community relations and is trying to forge strong relationships with residents. However, the aforementioned data shows that residents still do not trust the police.

According to community leaders, one reason why the programs are not increasing public trust is because they do not emphasize major topics that the community is interested in, like accountability. BPCAT surveyed hundreds of residents and found that every single one wanted consequences as part of the body camera pilot program. The section about consequences in the six-page BPD policy document consisted of merely one sentence.

Idowu believes BPD can improve its accountability is by changing its policy in the pilot program. In particular, he would change the policy allowing officers to watch body camera footage before writing reports. This creates a fear that officers can change their reports depending on the footage, preventing the footage from being used to keep the police accountable.

Reverend Rahsaan Hall, Director of the Massachusetts ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, thinks that accountability can also be improved by changing the way BPD engages with the community. In an interview with the HPR, Hall explained that the BPD currently develops plans and then presents them to the community. Instead, he thinks they should have conversations with members of the community and then develop a plan based on what the people want. “There are voices that are not included” in these policy conversations, Hall said, and the BPD needs to change that in order to gain the community’s trust.

Idowu and Evans also mentioned how residents feel that BPD is over-policing their neighborhoods by flashing their lights in neighborhoods all night, even if there was no emergency. Evans recounted a little girl who told her how bad she felt when the police were always on her block, just waiting for something to happen. While the police may hope their presence makes the neighborhood safer, Idowu explained that they also serve as a “reminder that your neighborhood is a jail cell.”

Evans proposed that rather than over-policing, BPD should invest in solutions for the problems that promote crime. If they want to address the community’s concerns, it “would be useful for the police not to view everything through a crime lens.” Instead, they should “switch to a public health and social service lens,” meaning that they would develop preventative and restorative programs that address health and social problems in Boston.

This solution is similar to the Cambridge Police Department’s strategy. In an interview with the HPR, Cambridge Police Commissioner Christopher Burke explained one of these programs, the Safety Net Collaborative. The CPD works with various organizations like the Cambridge Public Schools and Cambridge Health Alliance to identify young kids engaging in risky behavior that can develop into more serious actions. Through the program, they track their behavior during the school day and during out-of-school programs while connecting them with resources. The success is clear: juvenile arrests have been reduced by upwards of 70 percent, and kids have mentioned that youth-police relations “have never been better.”

In addition, Evans and Hall both emphasized the importance of police training. Evans mentioned that the NAACP does training-related work, especially related to mental health, implicit bias, and use of force. In addition to mental health and implicit bias, Hall also proposed more training in de-escalation and understanding the consequences of poverty. By strengthening these programs, they believe that the BPD can be more prepared for interacting with residents, and ultimately have more positive interactions.

Finally, Evans and Hall advocated for more diversity within police forces. The NAACP advocated for William Gross’s appointment as the BPD’s Superintendent-In-Chief, and he is now the first black person to hold this title. As Evans explained, the “presence of people of color in institutions matters.” Hall proposed using different hiring techniques and promotional exams to increase diversity within the police force.

Boston’s police still lead the nation in community-police relations. Their established programs for community engagement allow them to build trust within the communities they serve, and their body camera pilot program demonstrates their interest in increasing transparency and accountability. They have established communication with organizations that allow these organizations to help keep them accountable. But if the city wants to improve, it needs to take more action in increasing accountability, focusing on preventative and restorative justice instead of over-policing, and invest in more training and diversity initiatives.

Image Credit: Chase Elliott Clark/Flickr

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