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3 changes that Mayor Wu and Boston's next police commissioner must make

Boston police officers with batons lined up outside the District B-2 station in Roxbury before a protest on May 31, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston police officers with batons lined up outside the District B-2 station in Roxbury before a protest on May 31, 2020. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Earlier this month, Mayor Michelle Wu appointed a five-member committee to fill one of the most important jobs in Boston: the next Boston Police Department commissioner. This is an opportunity to reexamine public safety and the role of police in Boston.

While other major cities grapple with an explosion of violent crime over the last year, Boston has experienced another decrease in shootings, homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults.  This is due, in part, to a diversion of non-violent crimes, incidents involving substance use, and mental illness calls to non-violent response teams, allowing prosecutors and law enforcement to focus more time and resources on violent criminal activity.

Even so, Boston residents clearly want and deserve further reductions in street violence and an elevation of BIPOC community engagement and trust. How can the mayor and our new police commissioner continue to allow police to further reduce violent crime, and at the same time respond to concerns about racial justice and police reform?

In order to tackle these issues, Mayor Wu and our next commissioner need to do three things: narrow the scope of our police forces to respond only to violent crimes, ongoing crimes and serious felonies; create an unarmed, trained civilian public safety team to respond to non-violent crimes; and build a new police accountability infrastructure.

A police car burns, left, after being set on fire in Boston May 31, 2020, following a protest of the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (Steven Senne/AP)
A police car burns, left, after being set on fire in Boston May 31, 2020, following a protest of the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. (Steven Senne/AP)

Boston can narrow the scope of policing by having armed officers spend 100% of their time investigating serious and ongoing violent crime. Some municipalities have chosen to narrow the work of the police force by allocating a large proportion of police funding and responsibilities to programs and professionals more equipped to handle non-criminal cases.

The White Bird Clinic, a community-based health care provider in Eugene, Oregon, started a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) in 1989. CAHOOTS was founded on the knowledge that people in peril don’t need police; they want a community-based service that they can trust. CAHOOTS members are required to complete more than 500 hours of de-escalation and crisis intervention training and provide assistance to locals with urgent medical and psychological needs, crisis counseling, and conflict resolution, among many other services.

Police back-up has only been requested a meager 0.6 % percent of the time, or 150 times in a total of 24,000 calls. Currently, CAHOOTS responds to about 20% of calls that come in through 911 and the police non-emergency number, receiving between five to 10 requests for services per day.

In order to reduce mass incarceration and racial disparity, many social justice prosecutors have already refused to prosecute minor street crime violations such as graffiti, trespassing by homeless people sleeping in public places, minor damage to property, minor narcotics offenses, panhandling, etc. Studies suggest that 23% to 45% of 911 calls are for minor concerns such as noise complaints, behavioral health issues or other non-criminal and non-violent incidents.

In this March 19, 2017, file photo, Boston Police patrol on bicycles during the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
In this March 19, 2017, file photo, Boston Police patrol on bicycles during the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

A civil public safety force like CAHOOTS consists of professional and community-trained mediators, social workers, emergency medical technicians, traffic monitors and quality-of-life monitors who focus on violence prevention where armed police are not necessary. They respond to non-violent 911 calls and traffic offenses and monitor streets for quality-of-life concerns, such as noisy parties, public urination, selling single cigarettes and public drunkenness.

The bulk of common traffic offenses — including failure to stop at a red light, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt -- can be dealt with by unarmed traffic monitors issuing citations. This would significantly reduce violent incidents where people of color are often harassed by police due to minor traffic violations.

Even if we defund, dismantle, and reimagine a narrower armed police force by transferring responsibilities such as social services, health care and community services to service professionals, we still need a system of accountability for a police force focused exclusively on ongoing and violent crimes.

Police unions currently control police departments through collective bargaining. Left unscrutinized, unions have used the collective bargaining process to strip away police chiefs’ managerial powers, including the authority to fire, promote, hire or discipline. However, professional liability insurance is an instrument for identifying officers engaged in risky policing behaviors through a neutral actuarial process. Just as physicians, lawyers, accountants and other professionals carry insurance for protection against claims made by their clients, professional liability insurance detects and deters police misconduct.

Using a system of premiums that increase upon occurrences of dangerous policing and a fixed deductible, officers engaged in risky policing are priced out of the profession before they ever meet their victims. With bad officers held accountable through insurance policies, good officers can thrive, advance and protect the community. A system with police accountability creates an infrastructure that will save lives by detecting, preventing and deterring police misconduct, while at the same time reducing taxpayer costs and compensating victims fairly.

The prevailing model of public safety through a police-centric community-policing model no longer works. Reasonable people want police to reduce violent crime, but they also want a model of public safety that promotes civil rights, treatment of health issues and the use of mediation and de-escalation when appropriate. These multiple aspirations should be attainable. Boston is ready for a common-sense future of law enforcement and public safety. Now it’s time to find a new police commissioner who will lead us forward.

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Related:

Deborah Ramirez Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Deborah Ramirez is a professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law and co-director of the Center for Law, Equity and Race.

More…

Claire Bergstresser Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Claire Bergstresser is a second-year law student at Northeastern University School of Law and research assistant to Professor Deborah Ramirez.

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