POV: Reforming Boston’s Police Department
Making sense of the Police Reform Task Force recommendations
As the nation continues its struggle with racial discrimination and police abuse of authority, the city of Boston commissioned the Police Reform Task Force, appointed by Boston Mayor Martin Walsh in June, to recommend reforms for Boston Police Department (BPD). The Task Force report spells out five recommendations: 1) establish an office for external review of the BPD in the Mayor’s Office; 2) extend the current body-worn camera (BWC) program; 3) revise policy and establish a dedicated unit for diversity and inclusion; 4) update internal use-of-force policies; and 5) create protocols for data transparency. The recommendations echo those often called for by reform-minded policymakers, police leadership organizations, and policing scholarship and through legal action. Walsh recently committed to adopting all of the recommendations, calling them “bold” and “aggressive.”
Like other reform efforts, the recommendations reflect the broad aim of infusing the BPD with the values of equity, legality, transparency, and accountability—all vital to policing in a democratic society. The challenges of doing so are immense and not unique to Boston. Working to implement and refine the recommendations, with continued input from a range of important stakeholders, is the right step, and there are other avenues Walsh can take to further strengthen responsiveness to those communities most affected by police practices.
The strongest components will strengthen external control of the BPD and promote legitimacy. First, the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency (OPAT) institutionalizes ongoing review of BPD policy and practice. This rightly expands public review beyond individual cases of misconduct, which often capture the public’s attention, to continual updating and reform of policy, trainings, and other processes. The Task Force should make this role more clear in its recommendations and the mayor should give OPAT the authority to review and give input on policy and practice, as a full police auditor model.
Second, OPAT’s Internal Affairs Oversight Board and Civilian Review Board (CRB) possess the characteristics of legitimizing external review lacking in the existing “Co-op” model: investigative power through subpoena, community and police representation, and full-time staff. Evidence on the effect of police audit models, like OPAT, and CRBs on police behavioral outcomes is somewhat limited because studies focus on implementation issues, but the logic is sound. Without external oversight, ongoing reform will stagnate and even the most well-meaning departments can easily drift away from effective accountability practices until crisis comes along again.
Changing entrenched use-of-force and other decision-making practices is challenging because of the individual, organizational, and structural factors that shape them. The Task Force seeks to improve police-public interactions by strengthening bias-free policing policy statements, expanding and improving trainings on racial justice and other areas (e.g., “conflict management,” “communication”), enhanced monitoring (through BWC), and stricter sanctions (e.g., “zero-tolerance” for certain misconduct). That the time devoted to BPD’s racial equity training is “wholly inadequate” could aptly describe training on many topics across American policing. Greater time and regular reinforcement are necessary to develop and apply the knowledge, skills, and outlooks essential to resolve complex situations in a fair, legal, respectful, and safe way.
The Task Force missed an opportunity to speak more specifically about trainings, although clearer guidance from the research field is still a work in progress. De-escalation trainings are frequently called for, yet a recent systematic review of these trainings describes few studies testing changes in behavioral outcomes in policing settings. Research is clear that practicing procedural justice during interactions promotes a host of positive attitudinal (e.g., trust, perceptions of fairness) and behavioral outcomes (e.g., less resistance and force), and there is emerging evidence that shows training can increase use of these practices among officers. Other related trainings on social interactions, “guardian” versus “warrior” mindset, and those focused specifically on interactions with individuals with mental illness show promise. Lastly, we know that force is employed a great deal less often in the United Kingdom in comparable situations. The Police Executive Research Forum has pushed American police to adopt similar decision-making models, and evaluation research will be out soon. Achieving anywhere near the use-of-force outcomes observed from abroad would require dramatic changes to officer preparation and outlook (e.g., a commitment to the preservation of life). Despite the need for better evidence, most experts are in agreement that these kinds of trainings are among the best ideas, in addition to strengthening the amount of time and repetition devoted to them.
Strengthening monitoring and supervision are also central to reforms. The Task Force’s call to expand BPD’s existing body-worn cameras (BWC) program is warranted. But again, we should not be overly optimistic about BWC’s effect on behavior given the mixed evidence from evaluation studies. BWC programs should be conducted as part of a broader system of accountability and supervision that includes using video to coach and correct officer approaches, rather than solely as a tool for resolving disputes about liability. Towards this end, the report calls for the tightening of written policy and better documentation of force that would feed into supervision and management.
Preventing police misconduct, and reforming police governance more broadly, is as much about power and priorities as it is about any specific policy or program. Structural racism leads to segregation and isolation, which disadvantages communities of color in centralized police oversight processes. This is, in part, why we see structural conditions, in addition to individual and organizational factors, explain disparate justice outcomes, including deadly force. No task force is going to correct those conditions, but we highlight this not to throw our hands up, but to emphasize the importance for recommendations that will mitigate the gap in power by giving voice, representation, and control to communities most affected by poor police practices.
The Task Force is correct in seeking to promote representation through community-based advocates on oversight roles and establishing hiring preference to graduates from Boston Public Schools. Walsh could further institutionalize greater representation, voice, and control throughout the department by recommending other structures, such as formal neighborhood advisory boards with direct access to district-level leadership and management. These should not be simple police-community meetings or forums, but rather boards that would be able to provide direct guidance on priorities and assess practices. They would be empowered by the availability of data on police activities and performance metrics that reflect a range of democratic values. This kind of decentralized neighborhood control is the core of true community-oriented policing, which was lost to athletic leagues and ice cream trucks (which are all fine and good). There are challenges to decentralized oversight models, but they are premised on mitigating differential power in order to better align community preferences with police practices.
Ultimately, cities must confront how power shapes priorities and strategy decisions to produce racial disparities. Take the example of gun violence, which is a useful example because no one denies it is a significant public health problem that disproportionately affects communities of color. One of the BPD’s primary strategies uses suspicion-based searches to reduce illegal firearm possession, which means that communities of color disproportionately bear the costs of enforcement as well. Even if every one of these contacts was done legally, respectfully, and completely free of individual officer bias (and they surely are not), we would still see problematic disparities. Although this approach can yield some benefits in crime reduction, we should not accept it as some inevitable or warranted trade-off between equity and safety, as it is often framed in public discourse. Typically, the costs of enforcement or the implications for other values are not even considered because the incentives of most police agencies do not require their prioritization. Community-based accountability structures would help to inform the decision-making processes around police strategy with the values of equity and responsiveness.
This is an important time for policing in America. Social movements have once again rallied pressure on policymakers to make real change and to seriously reevaluate the footprint of policing altogether. There are powerful interests resisting change, ranging from those with legitimate concerns and others pushing for a model of policing that is antithetical to democracy. Mayors will need the political will to make progress on sustainable reforms.
“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact John O’Rourke at firstname.lastname@example.org. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.