Boston Detective Says Racism In BPD Is Evident, 1 Year After George Floyd

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Boston Police Detective Larry Ellison, near Franklin Park in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Boston Police Detective Larry Ellison, near Franklin Park in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Boston police Detective Larry Ellison is not optimistic that significant police reforms will happen any time soon.

Ellison is former president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers and is one of the nine members of the new state Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission.

One year after the murder of George Floyd, some reforms have been implemented to improve police accountability — but Ellison says racism is prevalent within BPD ranks.

In an interview this week to talk about the year since Floyd's killing sparked nationwide protests, Ellison said he felt the need to speak out about what's happening within the department.

Boston police leadership is in crisis after the sudden departure of Commissioner Dennis White amid decades-old domestic violence allegations. White was appointed by former Mayor Marty Walsh, who left office in March to become U.S. Labor Secretary.

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

On whether he is satisfied with the pace of reforms

There's no reform that you're going to put in place that's going to deal with what's in someone's heart as it relates to racism or biases. So you can reform all you want. We've seen since George Floyd — we've seen numerous other black men who have been murdered. And even after the conviction of Derek Chauvin, we still see this continuing to happen. So I don't think there's any reform that's going to deal with that. I think you have to deal with the individual.

On Boston's new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency and whether its power to look into police misconduct could create change

I don't think it's a magic bullet. I think there's a lot of hope that these these bills, these laws will change things. I guess, as I said to you earlier, you cannot change what's in someone's heart. So we could have all the reforms we want, but you're not going to reform that.

On the department's current leadership struggle 

I think that doesn't help with the instability of the leadership at the top. And I think the longer that this is dragging out, it does hurt because folks want stability. But you definitely need a steady hand and you need steady leadership. Now you have folks wondering who is in charge. And people have a tendency to decide which team they think they may be on — is the old guard out and is a new guard in? And who's that going to be? And for the residents also, they need to know there is stability. Who do they call?

On recent reports that found leadership knew about allegations against former Commissioner Dennis White and former Boston Police Patrolmen's Association president Patrick Rose

Let me just say it's unfortunate because I think, you know, Commissioner White and his family are going through a very traumatic time right now. So I don't think it helps anyone not having the truth out there. And I think it's one of the things that, in my time as the former president of the minority police officers, is we always talked about a process that is fair to everyone, that if my infraction is running a red light and I get a ticket for that, I'm OK with that — as long as everyone else who does the same thing gets the same ticket. ... And until you have a system where people believe that their issue is going to be dealt with the same way, we're going to see that it looks like there's favoritism for certain individuals and not others.

I mean, now we've got the mayor dragged into this and the former police commissioners. ... People are put in positions sometimes for their silence, because honestly, I think [former] Commissioner [William] Gross should have spoke out about a lot more issues that he did not because of his position in the police department, that he could have been more helpful in talking about the disparities. Is the process fair to everyone who has the same infractions?

On why he questions the credibility of former Commissioner Gross saying Walsh knew about the allegations

I question it because we also know that he knew about unfair treatment to other Black officers and he did nothing about it. He didn't speak out about it. So if you're going to speak out because this is a close friend of yours or your former chief of staff, then you also have to address all the others that we brought to your attention while you were in some capacity on the command structure. I don't think there's been enough effort to to recruit Black officers. And now, in a time where there's this distrust, it is very difficult to say to people of color that you should join a police department. It's very hard for me, seeing what I go through on a daily basis just because of what I look like to say to someone that I care about, that this is a profession that will really treat you well and that will be welcoming and that you will be part of something very special. I used to feel that, I don't feel that way anymore. What we're dealing with is 21st century racism. It may not be as overt, but it's more covert in the way that it's done.

On how to improve trust in the Boston Police Department

By having honest, open conversations like I'm having with you about what is taking place with people that look like me, because I think the public thinks that we all buy into this. And I just tell people I took an oath to the Constitution, not to any individual. The rules should be there for everyone, regardless of what you look like. And until we get to that point, we will continue to have these conversations. We will just have them in a different way. So until we have the leadership and the courage to call it what it is and to hold people accountable and not attack those folks who are willing to speak the truth.

You know, I've always had — I feel like I've had a target on my back for telling the truth. And the Boston Police Department has a truthfulness policy. Being honest with the public about what's taking place for people like me on the inside is an important step going forward. Now, it may make some folks uncomfortable and [there] may be some backlash, but I'm at peace with I know it has to be said and things have to change. We can't just talk about change. We can't have committees and groups and forums. That's not going to change people's behavior. It's accountability. And people willing to stand up for what's right, regardless of the price they pay.

On why doesn't agree with doing away with qualified immunity altogether

I think accountability is probably a fair way to assess that, holding people accountable for their behavior. ... I think there's already avenues that people can go after folks. Right now, it's difficult getting people to sign up for for law enforcement. If I say to you, look, take this job and you might go to jail, you might get sued, or you could probably lose your life — it's not really an inviting invitation to to join this job. But, I mean, I think we need some type of protection if we're doing our job and the performance of it, that we should not be held accountable personally .

On how he would sum up how BPD is doing with racial issues overall

I can tell you right now, in 10 years from now, you will find a new leadership or someone associated with the minority officers, someone in the Boston Police Department as well, to be honest with you, will be having — I believe — will have the same conversation with you. And if they have the courage they'll tell you that not much, if anything, has changed.

This segment aired on May 25, 2021.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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