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Q&A: Mayor Walsh talks on housing, police hiring, body cams & schools

Q&A: Mayor Walsh talks on housing, police hiring, body cams & schools
Mayor Martin Walsh (Photo: Photo: Don Harney, Mayor’s Office)

Bay State Banner reporters recently sat down with Mayor Martin Walsh to discuss diversity in policing, body cameras, affordable housing and next year’s Boston Public School budget outlook.

The interview transcript below has been edited for space constraints.

With activists calling for police-worn body cameras, the pilot seems to be going slower and is a bit less than people have been asking for. Are you confident body cameras will be implemented citywide?

Martin Walsh: Some of the activists that are asking for stuff — I don’t know how they get their information on what’s right and what’s wrong. There’s not a lot of precedent around the country for what program works or doesn’t work. The ACLU was pleased that 75 percent of the recommendations that they made were accepted in this pilot.

A body camera program is expensive, but we’re not really sure what it means. … After six months, probably before, we’ll assess. We’ll be able to take a first look at the information that we gather with the pilot and see what information is out there — how does it help policing, how does it help community relationships? We’ll look at everything.

Boston’s been somewhat slower than other some cities and towns on getting body cameras and dash cams. What’s contributed to that?

MW: There are many other cities and towns across America that don’t have them at all. I’m not going to compare us to other cities. We’re doing so much better on policing than so many other cities across America, so I look at the positive.

The Boston police department is becoming less diverse every day. You have a large number of African American and Latino officers who are nearing retirement age, but class after class of new recruits is coming in almost entirely white. Do you think the department is doing all it can to maintain and expand diversity?

MW: The work has to be done, but we’re mandated by law. [With the most recent recruit class hiring], we have the state Civil Service beating us up and MAMLEO on the other side beating us up. You can’t win here. There’s a law in place and we’ve got to follow.

We’re looking at the cadet program as one way of making sure we keep the police department diverse.

We’re going to lose a lot of officers over the course of the next couple of years. Not just black and Latino officers. At some point, 30-something years ago, there was a large influx of hiring. Those officers are coming of retirement age and … we have to think how to backfill and fill up our ranks. Part of that will be through testing and part of that’s through cadets.

Councilor Flaherty proposed legislation [in 2014] that would have changed the requirement to three-years residency before you can become a police officer. He argued that would give people who live in Boston — whether from Southie or Roxbury — a better shot at getting in and prevent people from Maine from getting an address here and getting a job.

MW: That legislation needs to be changed at the state level.

He filed at state level. He said you pulled it and said you were going to re-file it. Where’s that at?

MW: I have no idea. I’ll have to look. …. I have no idea what he’s talking about as far as I pulled that one. I can’t pull a docket of councilor files.

Is that a measure that you want to see happen? Do you think that it’s useful?

MW: I absolutely would be considered to be supportive. We’ve got to check and see if we can get it passed legislatively and how affects civil service. [Although I support veteran’s preference, it’s one challenge]. It’s six-month residency [requirement in place] today – expanding that a little more would be beneficial.

The number of Latinos in the police department is about nine percent, while the number in the city is almost 20 percent. The city can request Spanish-speaking officers, Cape Verdean Creole-speaking officers, Haitian Creole-speaking officers. They can get past the civil service.

MW: It’s not that easy. It’s not on the city for the lack of diversity within the police department. It is a state law — and actually it was just strengthened again this legislative session — and it is a federal law. We cannot go around state and federal law, as much as we might want to.

On Monday [August 15] you said Boston is “becoming a city of people who can make it and people who have to move out.” You’re two years into the implementation of your housing plan. How would you assess the prospects for middle class and working class homebuyers and renters?

MW: We’ve done a pretty decent job of creating more housing units. We’ve changed Inclusionary Development Program requirements from 13 percent to 18 percent. That’s going to get us some more money to be able to create more.

The Community Preservation Act is going to be big for us. I had a meeting yesterday with some business leaders to try to encourage them to be supportive. I think it will pass in Boston. That will give us another pot of money to create more affordable housing.

[Editor’s note: The Mayor explained that the way the law is written allows the state to match state and municipal CPA funds at a one-to-one ratio. Currently, the state matches 25 percent of municipal investment.]

I think it’s about $16.4 million a year that we’ll raise in taxes [with the CPA] and if we get the one-to-one match, that’s $32.8 million that we’ll have for housing.

In 2015, we completed 1,222 units of low-income housing in the city. It was largest number in the history of the city. … We’re seeing a developer interest in moderate, low-income housing. Where we’re going to run into a problem is, communities don’t want the density in the neighborhood. We’ll have money to do some great things with housing over the next two, three, four, five years, but the challenge will be to sell it to the different communities.

We created four “growth zones.” What it is, is having neighbors come in, residents come in and have a debate and conversation about what they would like to see in the neighborhood — what the density would be, what the mix of construction would be — before any development comes. [This is not pushing a particular development project]. We’re looking at what you would like to see in the future. We’re trying to do that as a way to build trust.

In the first place we did it was South Boston and Jamaica Plain. In Southie … people agreed to heightened density in certain levels.

In Jamaica Plain, some activists asked for a moratorium on the growth zone plan. We’re not going to do that. But what I am going to do is continue to work with the community.

The next two growth zones are Dudley and Glovers’ Corner.

To be clear, the zoning would be changed to allow greater height and density?

MW: Whatever they decide. … In the South Boston one, we’re not talking skyscrapers.

Dudley Square

MW: The Bolling Building was a great addition to Dudley Square, but I think it’s the next privately-funded building that is the one that will get activity happening. There’s some great stuff happening. … You’re starting to see a little activity on the streets, storefronts starting to fix up inside. You’re going to see more business coming. That’s what Dudley needs.

I guess you’d need a change in the demographics around Dudley in order to have your market?

MW: I don’t think you need that. To preserve Dudley, you need businesses that the residents will use, but the residents also need opportunities. What’s lacking is real opportunities for employment. I’d be careful with trying to attract businesses that will change the demographic breakdown of Dudley.

Are there any strategies the city is considering to keep or make rents affordable for business?

MW: I don’t know if there’s way to do that [or] if there’s a problem with rents for businesses. I’d rather spend resources on trying to keep people in their homes. We have the Main Street program, the façade storefront program — there are other ways to get money to businesses to help them with their stores.

BPS has had a dramatic budget year. You’ve been talking about the need to rein in the costs and we’ve seen student protests, arguing the cuts are too much. Are we likely to see this cycle happen next budget year?

MW: I think it’s going to happen again next year. We have some work to do.

We have to look at Boston. Boston has 128 schools. We have about 20 to 24 different models of schools. We have 22 different start times. When you try to operate a business like that, it runs out of business. Because it’s government, it doesn’t go out of business, we keep funding it.

Some neighborhoods have nice feeder patterns from K-12, or K-8. Other neighborhoods don’t. We have K-1s, K-2s, K-3s. We have no K-4s. We have K-5s, K-6s, no K-7s. We have K-8s. Just that alone is a confusing system. We have to think about how to deliver the services better.

As we move forward, we have to see how we spend every penny the right way.

We’re looking at wraparound services in our schools. We have kids with learning challenges, homeless challenges, family challenges, disability challenges, English language learner challenges and a high number of immigrant kids in our district. There’s a lot of challenges there and we need to deliver a better system for educating kids.

We can continue to throw money at it and have the status quo, but I’m not going to settle for the status quo. Our kids deserve better.

I’m not supportive of Question 2 even though I am a charter supporter, because there’s no funding mechanism. If that passes, it’ll hurt us financially— we’ll have to pick up more of the slack for underfunded charter schools.

After we did our city budget, we got cut on the state level [funding for] 200 kindergarten seats and $2.6 million for charter school reimbursement. We the city have to pick that up just to keep continuing our rise in pre-K seats and continue our funding for charter schools.

What do you think of the situation at Boston Latin School?

MW: I just think it was sad how that played out. … We started looking at the number of kids who have been accepted to our exam schools and the number of kids of color accepted at exam schools. It’s 48 or 49 percent. The number of kids that chose Latin School this year was in the mid-20s. It doesn’t meant they didn’t get in to it, it means they didn’t choose Latin School. We have to figure out, fundamentally, why aren’t kids choosing Latin School? Is it because of the education inside, the race issue inside, or the perception of the race issue inside?

Hopefully, we get a system that addresses all the issues. We can’t have any of our kids feel they don’t have a safe learning environment.