Bringing the nation’s oldest police department into the 21st century — making it more diverse, more transparent, and more responsive to the needs of the community it serves — isn’t for the faint of heart. But Mayor Marty Walsh of Boston has staked his political life on doing just that — and in what would be an astonishing six months.
If he succeeds, Boston will at least have done something ambitious to address the problems with policing that disproportionately impact communities of color — even if the agenda falls short of reimagining the police and city services. If he fails, if he allows Boston’s police unions to continue to be the tail that wags the dog of city policing, then this city and its people will all pay a heavy price for that failure.
This week, Walsh signed on to a sweeping set of reforms proposed by a task force he appointed some four months ago, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the days of street demonstrations that followed here and around the nation. The task force, headed by former US attorney Wayne Budd, came back with a roster of bold steps the department should be taking to gain the trust of an increasingly wary public.
And the task force noted in its final draft that the city should view its recommendations “as the floor rather than the ceiling on police reform.”
But all reforms have to start somewhere, and there was nothing equivocal in Walsh’s words this week about that report: “I accept and endorse each of these principles. . . . I will use every tool at my disposal to make this a reality.”
Among the reforms are an independent police oversight office, including a civilian review board, with subpoena power and the authority to investigate misconduct, a new diversity and inclusion unit within the police department, and new policies mandating expanded use of body-worn cameras by officers.
At the report’s heart are efforts to make the department more transparent, like the recommendation that the BPD should develop a “problem officer list based on infractions” and internal affairs reports, and that the list and “corresponding data, should be publicly available.”
A recent Globe story showing that Black officers were disciplined at a much higher rate than white officers not only pointed to racial bias in the department but also showed shocking gaps in the data collected by the department.
Walsh also pledged to file a home rule petition on Beacon Hill to change the civil service law to give preference to graduates of the city’s schools and the METCO program, which could eventually help the force look more like the community it serves. That, of course, would depend on the state Legislature, which still hasn’t finalized its own version of a police reform bill after two and a half months of negotiations.
So good intentions aside, there are a number of potential obstacles to making all of this actually happen. Take the issue of those body-worn cameras. According to the mayor’s office, Walsh “has previously committed his full support of body cameras being worn by officers during all shifts, including overtime, and Boston Police are actively working toward that goal.” The mayor made that pledge nearly a year ago, and it still hasn’t happened.
And as the police shooting of Juston Root in February showed — when five Boston officers responded but only one had her body camera up and running — union contracts preventing overtime use of the cameras aren’t the only problem.
The task force timeline notes that several of the provisions on body cameras are “part of current bargaining discussions.”
Also subject to those ongoing contract negotiations is a task force recommendation that “After use of force or instances when a civilian is killed, the Officer should have a psychological exam and submit to a drug/alcohol test.”
All of this points to the fact that Walsh will need to be as tough at the bargaining table on behalf of the city and its people as he once was as a labor leader.
The mayor made a lot of promises this week, promises that could help the city heal its racial divisions and move toward a more respected, credible, and transparent policing effort. And it’s good to see him throw his weight behind police reform. Keeping those promises — even in the face of union intransigence — will be crucial, if not a panacea. Bostonians should hold him to making good on them.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.