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A long, uphill battle for Boston police reform

Saraya Wintersmith, GBH News
A long, uphill battle for Boston police reform
Protestors march down Washington Street in the South End during a 2020 demonstration against police killings. BANNER FILE PHOTO

It took the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020 to jump-start Boston’s police reform efforts.

Now, what should be a robust City Hall oversight apparatus — the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency — is in place, and Mayor Michelle Wu is aiming to name a new police commissioner with advice from her hand-picked search committee this spring.

As mayor, Wu has refrained from spelling out specific reforms, but has made clear her intent to hire a reform-minded commissioner. That job will be a monumental challenge given half a century’s record of almost total resistance to change from the police unions that represent the approximately 2,860 current members of the force, the nation’s oldest.

In 2006, Mayor Thomas Menino reached outside the Boston Police Department to appoint Ed Davis, then-superintendent of the Lowell Police, to be commissioner. That decision was met with a concert of gripes.

During a time of high gang activity, Davis reestablished the practice of the commissioner being present at shooting and murder scenes. The message to the community and the police force was clear: “I am watching.”

In his seven-year tenure, Davis was credited with restoring or improving professional standards within the force. He was, however, criticized by officers of color who alleged racial favoritism in promotions. Still, his standing as a nationally recognized police and security expert is likely part of what prompted Wu to name Davis as a member of her search committee.

Boston’s first reformer

In 1972, Mayor Kevin White named the tenacious reformer Robert J. di Grazia, who had been serving as police commissioner of St. Louis County, to be his top cop. Upon arrival, di Grazia met a united wall of resistance. In the process of implementing his reforms, di Grazia seemingly became a union enemy until his departure in 1976.

Toward the end of his tenure, di Grazia’s time was subject to a detailed case study sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with funds from the National Science Foundation. It was written by attorney Rory Judd Albert, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

Albert’s report, nevertheless, offers hauntingly relevant insights into the potential challenges the Wu administration and Boston’s next police leader may confront.

Most of di Grazia’s reforms were successful, Albert’s report says, despite the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association’s obstructive efforts to kill them through the courts and administrative labor actions.

Among those reforms, di Grazia instituted the 911 emergency telephone number, reorganized the department, closed the city jail, discontinued the harbor patrol unit to put more officers and cruisers on streets, and began tamping down overtime abuse. And, significantly, di Grazia created a special investigations unit to detect and prevent corruption within the ranks. While all this was in progress, he led the BPD through Boston’s early and violent years of school desegregation.

Those who remember his tenure said a confluence of several factors contributed to the resistance di Grazia faced: racial and ethnic tension, political pressure and entrenched Boston parochialism.

For one thing, di Grazia was an Italian man leading an historically Irish department.

Activists gather in Nubian Square during a 2020 demonstration. BANNER FILE PHOTO

Former City Councilor Larry Di Cara, now 72, said sometime early on in his tenure, he warned di Grazia of the city’s racism and ethnically based tribalism. Di Cara was relieved when he realized the new “larger than life” commissioner also had a thick skin.

“I said, ‘Y’know, some people aren’t going to like you because of your name, and some people don’t like me because of my name, and you’ve got to deal with it,’” Di Cara recalled telling di Grazia. “That didn’t bother him one bit.”

Former Boston Police Officer Preston Williams, 79, a Black man who served from 1968 to 2003, confirmed that racial and ethnic tension pulsed through the department at the time.

“I could deal with the people in the street, but most of my problems happened within the department,” Williams recalled of the predominately white police force.

“Either they would ignore you, call you names [or] didn’t want to work with you,” Williams said, “There was always some reason they had to keep you alienated. That’s what they did back then.”

The Boston Police Department’s demographics have changed over time. In 1973, just 2 percent of officers were Black, according to data obtained by the Boston Globe. Today, 61.5% of BPD personnel are white, 22.3% are Black, 12.1% are Latino and 2.7% percent are Asian.

Union power and resistance

Aside from the ethnic and racial tension of di Grazia’s tenure, the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which had formed almost a decade earlier in 1965, was flexing its political muscle; so much so that the di Grazia case study identified the organization as his “most effective opposition.”

According to the Albert report, the union successfully resisted the restriction of federally funded overtime pay to select high-performing officers di Grazia identified, and through their contract blocked the inclusion of psychological and intelligence testing for officers.

“I think even though [Mayor White] went outside to get him, the mayor still had to deal with the unions,” Williams said, speculating what made the union so effective in resisting change.

In the 1990s, after the Charles Stuart duped the department into aggressively pursuing a fictional Black man for the murder of his wife, an eight-member panel was appointed to examine the BPD. Noted Boston attorney James St. Clair was the panel’s chair, leading to the investigators becoming known as the St. Clair Commission.

Stillborn reforms

The St. Clair Commission recommended sweeping reforms, including the dismissal of then-Commissioner Francis Roache and the formation of a community review board. Roache, an insider’s insider, resisted being pushed out and Mayor Ray Flynn eventually disbanded the commission.

The BPPA approved a vote of confidence on Roache’s behalf within days of the panel’s public report.

The St. Clair Commission’s other recommendations included: an overhaul of the Internal Affairs Division, the section responsible for examining citizen complaints; and the investigation of police-involved shootings by a team composed of lawyers, the U.S. attorney, the state attorney general and the Suffolk County district attorney.

The department said it planned to implement most of the recommendations, though Roache stayed on as commissioner and a weak review board — without the power to conduct independent investigations — wasn’t assembled until decades later.

A revived effort

Many of the St. Clair Commission’s recommendations resurfaced when Mayor Marty Walsh convened a similar police reform panel in 2021, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Di Cara agreed that public safety unions enjoyed a higher degree of political clout years ago, particularly among politicians who wanted the group’s endorsement. But, Di Cara said, Boston’s political power dynamics have shifted.

“I think the climate has changed dramatically, where today a lot of people don’t want their endorsement,” he said.

Much like Mayor White in the 1970s, Wu has signaled an intent to deliver reforms to the police department. She is seeking to embed reforms into the collective bargaining agreements with the city, including full transparency and accountability for misconduct, wasteful spending reduction and establishing guardrails against over-policing.

But unions have already begun asserting their collective bargaining rights, as laid out in state law. The success they have had in fighting Wu’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate is a testament to their tenacity and strong legal undergirding.

Wu attempted to require all municipal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk termination. A trio of public safety unions won a pause to the policy through a state appeals court judge. Wu’s administration is now appealing that decision.

“I think it was a great victory for the unions, and I think that they will be working with whoever the commissioner is in setting the new contracts … operating from a position of strength,” Di Cara said.

Di Cara, a councilor dedicated to reform years ago, echos the current mayor with this sentiment. Wu has long maintained that the ultimate success of reforming Boston police lies in the future contracts the city negotiates with the various police unions.

If they are correct, that means that the selection of a new commissioner will be just the beginning of a journey of a long and winding road to redefine how the police do their jobs.

Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.