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City Council Responds to Growing Demands for Police Reform

As protests continue in an effort to address racial injustice and police brutality across the country, the Boston City Council has turned their attention toward police reform. The City Council is in the process of finalizing their FY21 budget and recently held a public hearing around their police budget. Advocates have urged the Boston City Council to reallocate a portion of the existing $414 million funds into other aspects of the community that could better serve against systemic racism.

A protester holds up a sign in downtown Boston during the May 31st protests against police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Photo by Alyssa Nations.

Amidst the growing demand for defunding the police, Councilor Michelle Wu (At-Large) requested information from Mayor Marty Walsh on how the Boston Police Department uses military-style tactics along with further clarification of the tactics that have been deployed during protests from May 25th onward. She also sought a list of all existing law enforcement equipment that could be classified as “militarized.”

“Aspiration isn’t good enough. We need actions and plans.” wrote Councilor Wu on Twitter. She believes that having a full inventory of the equipment the police force currently holds and how it acquired such equipment is important to get a better perspective on how to bring about reform.

Further, her request included body camera footage with a breakdown of demographics and underlying crimes related to “no knock” warrants that have been initiated from 2010 to present.

Councilor Wu asked that a list be made available that detailed complaints against law enforcement officers in regards to their use of force, conduct, and other allegations.

Councilors Julia Mejia (At-Large) and Andrea Campbell (District 4) offered an ordinance that would further explore the use of restraint tactics by the police department. The order is intended to address any oversights in the language regarding the use of non-lethal force that is outlined in the Boston Police Department Rules and Procedures.

“If I’m being real, I’m tired of the conversation for the conversation about the conversation,” stated Councilor Mejia during the weekly meeting on Wednesday afternoon, admitting the City Council’s limitations in regards to actually being able to change the BPD’s restraint tactics. Instead, she hopes the hearing will move the conversation into action.

Currently, the non-lethal force guideline does not explicitly state that chokehold techniques are not to be used in detaining a suspect. The policy only outlines that officers are not to utilize “techniques that include squeezing the trachea, windpipe, or throat” in order to prevent a subject from swallowing a controlled substance.

In response to the MBTA suddenly halting services to their downtown stations during a peaceful protest on May 31st that ended with a night of vandalism and looting, Councilors Wu and Mejia offered a resolution urging the MBTA to remain operational during large demonstrations.

The MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board recently voted to no longer transport police to protest sites or protesters to police headquarters. However, the proposal wishes to pursue further protocols that would ensure that police are unable to commandeer the MBTA without seeking permission from officials.

Councilor Michael Flaherty (At-Large) stated that he could not completely support the proposal due to the closing resolution that requests the MBTA not to allow law enforcement the power to delegate its service and operations. He argued that this could create a dangerous situation for the public in the event of a large-scale attack.

“I think it’s well within the T’s right to close a few T stations,” stated Councilor Frank Baker (District 3), who argued that the second half of peaceful protests on May 31st were riots.

The ordinance sponsors declined the suggestion for amending the order, maintaining that it was essential to ensure the MBTA does not become another “arm” for law enforcement and that safe access to public transit remain available in the event of large demonstrations of residents’ freedom of speech. Because the votes were not unanimous, the resolution was not passed and was instead assigned to the Committee of Planning, Development, and Transportation.