Community conversations highlight policing problems
4/22/2015, 10:36 a.m. | Bay State Banner
Two different neighborhood meetings last week highlighted deep concerns that many residents have about the Boston Police Department’s track record on community relations, racial profiling and use of force — including concerns voiced by, and about, black police officers.
“Ferguson is everywhere,” said Dr. Kahlilah Brown-Dean while opening up a panel Wednesday night at Northeastern University. “Ferguson happens when we treat black death as nothing more than public spectacle. I cannot watch any more videos.”
In the past few weeks, videos showing the fatal police shootings of unarmed black men Walter Scott in South Carolina and Eric Harris in Oklahoma have gone viral.
Panelist Seneca Joyner, one of the lead organizers of Black Lives Matter Boston, said that she did not think police reform went far enough. “We are interested in abolition,” she said in reference to the police department.
She added that she often told police officers “they are making terrible life decisions” with respect to their career choice.
Other panelists expressed a similar desire for sweeping change.
“Police are no more protected than any other human being in the law,” said Carlton Williams, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “The law exists, but the societal and cultural will is not there … We need to change the culture.”
The Northeastern panel was co-sponsored by the Northeastern Law School and Suffolk Law School chapters of the National Lawyers Guild and the United For Justice with Peace coalition.
In a similar vein, a town hall meeting the following night hosted at the Dudley Square library highlighted negative experiences that many have had with the police, while highlighting the promises and limitations of various policy solutions.
Boston resident Carla Sheffield described the 2012 fatal police shooting of her son, Burrell Ramsey-White.
An investigation by the Suffolk District Attorney’s office cleared the officer of wrongdoing in December 2013, saying he was acting in self-defense after Ramsey-White pointed a loaded handgun at him.
Terrance Williams, who is running for the City Council’s 4th District seat, spoke about a double-standard he had experienced in his interactions with police, saying he was personally affected by the crackdown on black men in Roxbury following the 1989 death of Carol Stuart, a white woman. It was later found that Stuart was murdered by her husband.
“Some of these officers, they’ll lie to put a case on you, but there’s no consequences if they get caught in a lie,” he said.
Like the Northeastern panel, the Dudley event included a discussion about the different styles of activism surrounding police matters. Panelists also listed some specific avenues for movement, among them a stronger mechanism for civilian oversight of the police and several bills that have been introduced at the state and city levels.
One of the panelists, Natashia Tidwell, currently sits on the city’s Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, or COOP. The COOP was established in 2007 and reviews a portion of police internal investigations to ensure that they were conducted properly. Tidwell was careful to note that the COOP is not the same as a civilian review board, because it does not conduct its own independent investigations. Rather, it is limited to simply checking whether a police internal investigation was conducted in a “fair and thorough” manner.
The COOP only reviews a sampling — about 18 percent — of police investigations. Earlier this month, Mayor Walsh promised an overhaul of the COOP, which he agreed does not currently have enough powers to have a real impact.
Tidwell noted that the current system has discouraged many people from filing complaints with the Internal Affairs Department in the first place.
“More [people] would be heard if there were a place independent of the police department doing investigations,” she said.
The panel also highlighted several pending bills at both the state and city levels: a bill from Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz that would require data collection on police-civilian encounters and prohibit racial profiling; a bill from Representative Evandro Carvalho that would remove the District Attorney from investigations of officer-involved deaths of civilians; and two city ordinances by Councilor Charles Yancey that would mandate the use of body cameras by police officers and establish a civilian review board for the police department.
Although there was a strong sense among panelists and audience members that adding more diversity to the police force would be useful, many said that the tactic would not be sufficient to create the level of change needed.
“It’s good to have diversity within the police department, but let us not be confused that that is the cure-all,” said Rahsaan Hall, Deputy Director of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice. “There are black cops that do bad things too. Let’s talk about changing the culture of the department.”
Larry Ellison, the President of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, was at the Dudley Square meeting. In a follow-up phone conversation with the Banner, he said he shared some of the frustrations expressed by community members at the town hall.
Ellison said that he thought the main source of the problem stemmed from a reluctance to change system-wide.
“It’s still the [former Boston Police Commissioner Ed] Davis administration in place,” he said. “The chief, the current commissioner, and probably 85 percent of the command staff were appointed in some capacity by Ed Davis and [former mayor Tom] Menino — so there really hasn’t been much of a change. It’s recycling.”
Ellison added that a major part of the problem was a lack of promotion of black officers and other officers of color to the upper ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He said that he was not talking about promoting officers of color with lower scores on police exams, but rather about what he says is a racial disparity in promotions among officers with the same police scores. In years past, Ellison led a forceful charge against former Commissioner Davis based on similar allegations.
The police department boasted earlier this year of hiring its “most diverse command staff” ever, which Ellison described in an email as “the same old, tired song about the command staff.”
Police department spokesperson Lt. Michael McCarthy called all of Ellison’s claims “entirely inaccurate.” He pointed to the diversity within the command staff that the department previously has touted, but also said that half of the promotions enacted by Police Commissioner William B. Evans over the last 14 months to sergeant, lieutenant and captain positions were officers of color. According to police department data, 11 of the 21 promotions to captain, lieutenant or sergeant positions within the last year or so were black or Hispanic officers. McCarthy said there are three minority captains, something he called “a first in the history of the police department.”
He also flatly dismissed Ellison’s observation about a high rate of staff holdovers from the Davis administration.
“I’m not sure what he’s basing that on,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s time maybe for a leadership change in MAMLEO, someone who’s closer to the issues.”
In a follow-up phone call, Ellison explained that he was not arguing with the factuality of the 50 percent promotion rate touted by Evans, but said it was not enough to create any substantial change in the department.
“We’re just maintaining [the numbers of officers of color],” he said, adding that the retirement of officers prevents any net change. “Where is the movement?”
While Ellison did describe some initial outreach on diversity from Commissioner Evans, including a meet-and-greet in February that was supposed to “hit a reset button” on race issues within the department, he said there was no real follow-up in his eyes.
“There’s really no relationship with our organization and the current [Evans] administration,” he said.