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OPINION

We’ve seen these proposed Boston police reforms before — they don’t work

These measures haven’t worked elsewhere and likely won’t work in Boston.

A recording from a body camera of a police officer during the police shooting of Juston Root in February. The recording police officer gestures to his body camera and says, "Should I turn it off?" The police officer on the left responded, "They went off over there, they said everybody's body camera off."
A recording from a body camera of a police officer during the police shooting of Juston Root in February. The recording police officer gestures to his body camera and says, "Should I turn it off?" The police officer on the left responded, "They went off over there, they said everybody's body camera off."Norfolk District Attorney's Office

Earlier this week, Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston embraced a set of proposals recommended by the Boston Police Reform Task Force, a task force he assembled in the wake of mass protests against police brutality and racial inequities in the criminal legal system following George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. The recommendations, which have been described as “sweeping,” include initiatives with which we are all now familiar — expanding the use of body-worn cameras, diversifying the police force and creating a culture of inclusion and belonging, engaging officers in implicit-bias training, creating an independent oversight review board, and enhancing police use-of-force policies. Remarking that “these are bold steps,” Walsh has set a 180-day timeline to implement key elements of the task force’s proposal.

The problem: These measures haven’t worked elsewhere and probably won’t work in Boston. Empirical evidence fails to support the notion that these are efficacious approaches to reduce or eliminate the racial inequities in the criminal legal system that they are presumably meant to address.

Let’s consider each in turn.

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The task force recommended that the BPD formalize and expand its commitment to diversity and inclusion, and the mayor promises to do so. Apparently, as Boston become more diverse, its police department has become whiter. By diversifying its force across all ranks, the task force suggests that the BPD will be able to “serve all communities with respect.”

The evidence does not support this contention. Even with far greater descriptive representation of police forces across the country, police brutality against Black and brown people and other ethno-racial inequities continues to be a major problem, especially so in low-income communities. Furthermore, some of the worst cases of brutality and inequities, as measured by how many Black people have been killed, are in cities where Black police officers are a significant minority or majority of the force, where police chiefs are Black, or in some cases where the mayor of the city is Black as well. In the Mapping Police Violence police accountability tool, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Atlanta fit this pattern. Importantly, there are similar patterns for Latinos, although on a smaller scale. Here, Los Angeles, San Antonio, and Albuquerque are good examples. This, of course, is not an argument to abandon efforts at diversifying the police force.

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Walsh also promises to expand the BPD’s use of body-worn cameras in an effort to increase police transparency and accountability. Thus far, however, a growing body of research suggests that body-worn cameras have no impact on residents’ views of police. This makes sense, since such cameras do little if anything to change police officers’ patterns of behaviors. In many contexts, police officers decide when to turn their cameras on and off; police departments can decide if/when to make videos available to the public; departments can redact videos before sharing; and after sharing, they can offer interpretations of events that often differ from what happened. (In some departments police officers have been allowed to view the videos before giving their versions of events, presumably to create a story that aligns with what the video shows.) It is difficult to see how body-worn cameras will be used differently by the BPD.

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The task force report recommended implicit-bias training in hopes of altering the way officers think and behave. But implicit-bias training does not work. A large and growing body of research suggests that while such training might change individuals’ minds in the short run, it has no effect on individuals’ thinking over the long term.

Perhaps more important, even when short-term changes do occur in officers’ attitudes, it has no discernible effect on their patterns of behavior. A recent study of the New York Police Department, which paid $4.5 million to provide its officers with implicit-bias training, revealed that although officers’ attitudes toward the role implicit bias played in policing changed in ways that would suggest more equitable treatment of Black and Latino people, policing didn’t. Data proved rates of stops, frisks, summonses, and arrests remained virtually the same after training — and police use of force during stops increased in frequency. This study is the most recent in a growing body of studies that demonstrates implicit-bias training doesn’t change anyone’s behavior, much less police officers’.

And what of the proposed Office of Policing Accountability and Transparency, which Walsh promises to push through? Well, it’s complicated. There are different models of civilian oversight, and each municipality adopts an approach that is specific to its local needs. No two oversight boards are the same. What this means is that it is difficult to assess which models work well and under what circumstances. Still, empirical evidence to support the efficacy of such boards is lacking. Given what we know today, this general approach does little to increase transparency or accountability. Indeed, some contend that such bodies yield less accountability, not more. Furthermore, Walsh’s proposed approach to constituting Boston’s Office of Policing Accountability and Transparency has already been criticized for tipping the scales in favor of police.

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Finally, police use-of-force policies are only effective if noncompliant officers are appropriately sanctioned for noncompliance. But, as the Globe has reported, in Boston, police officers are only rarely made to account for their misconduct.

If the intention is to meet this moment of transformational possibilities with policies that will significantly alter the criminal legal landscape, then, whether taken separately or as a slate, the police reforms the city’s task force has recommended, and the reforms the mayor intends to implement, are wholly insufficient. To address bias in policing, Boston must employ a creative strategy informed by data and successful models. To do that, it needs a little more imagination and a lot more political will. Right now, it’s clear Boston has neither.

Sandra Susan Smith is a professor of criminal justice and faculty director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School and a professor at the Radcliffe Institute.