A New Mayor Makes Boston the Latest Test Case on Confronting Police Violence

Michelle Wu could turn Boston into a showcase for how the left can change policing, or underscore the entrenchment of police power

Eoin Higgins | February 11, 2022

Michelle Wu Boston
In January, Mayor Michelle Wu announced the formation a new committee to search for Boston’s next police commissioner (City of Boston/Facebook)

The Boston Police Department (BPD) has an ugly history of violence and impunity. From incidents of domestic violence to bragging about running down protesters, officers in the department often terrorize city residents with little consequence.

Today, BPD is more politically weakened than ever in recent memory. Civil rights activists in Boston call the current moment a golden opportunity to fundamentally reimagine public safety.

“Crime is down, arrests are down in Boston,” ACLU of Massachusetts executive director Carol Rose said. “This is the opportunity to take some of the reforms that have started and to really build them into the system.”

Boston has long been controlled by a white power structure that’s resistant to change, but the 2020 uprising following George Floyd’s murder increased public pressure to change policing in the city. In November, Michelle Wu, Boston’s new progressive mayor, took office in a landslide win after promising to make deep and systemic police reforms.

Wu’s arrival in power in Boston is a new opportunity for the left to showcase the credibility of its policies in confronting police violence, though it also risks underscoring the limitations of municipal leadership and the entrenchment of police power, even when weakened. It was only recently that Bill de Blasio became mayor in New York on similar hopes that he would boldly reform the police after a hard-hitting campaign, only to largely surrender to police opposition. And in many other cities, municipal leaders vocally supported the 2020 protestors without putting their demands into policy.

Thwarted by a mix of antagonism from police unions or by their own indifference, progressive officials have largely failed to chart a new path of municipal leadership on policing. In that context, Wu’s victory in Boston and promises for police reform beg the question: After decades of inaction from outwardly progressive leaders, what will it take to meaningfully change policing at the local level?

Wu is part of a new, diverse coalition demanding change in Boston. Her signs were ubiquitous in Boston’s Black and brown neighborhoods, which bear the brunt of aggressive policing in the city. In 2019, 70% of people stopped under BPD’s “Field Interrogation and Observation” program, similar to the infamous stop-and-frisk program by New York police, were Black, despite Black people comprising just a quarter of the city’s population. While the total number of stops went down in 2020, the racial disparity continued, with around 62% of those stopped being Black.

The recent shift in politics around policing in Boston reflects a more diverse and engaged electorate, said Toiell Washington, co-founder of the racial justice group Black Boston. City council has started to look more like the people they represent, rather than the old order. “They're not these random politicians that nobody in the community knows, nobody knows what their plans are,” Washington told me. “They're people who were actually doing things in the community before.”

Backlash to police abuses from the city’s grassroots organizers has been building for years, and Wu harnessed that energy during her rise in Boston politics. Previously, as a member of Boston City Council, Wu called for a 10 percent reduction in BPD’s budget. While running for mayor, Wu also called for banning police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and no-knock warrants. “It is all too clear that our city’s public safety structures have not kept all of us safe,” Wu’s campaign website stated. “We must take concrete steps to dismantle racism in law enforcement by demilitarizing the police.”

Some activists in the city, like Muslim Justice League (MJL) Executive Director Fatema Ahmad, are skeptical of Wu’s committment to major change. Ahmad criticized Wu and other city leaders for failing to cut police spending after the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. When Wu ran for mayor last year, she answered a MJL questionnaire asserting she was in favor of reallocating police spending, but entered zero for the actual amount she’d cut from the police department. When the group asked her to clarify, especially given her previous support for cutting 10 percent of the budget, Wu still wouldn’t commit to a specific amount, insisting cuts would have to be negotiated through collective bargaining with the city’s police union. “No candidate can honestly commit to reinvesting a specific dollar amount from the BPD budget into community services, because true reform necessarily runs through the police union contract,” Wu wrote at the time.

“There's a disconnect between the language that she uses versus the details of what she's actually going to do,” Ahmad said. Wu’s office didn’t make the mayor available for comment.

Despite those critiques, Ahmad remains hopeful that Wu can deliver on police reforms based on some of her early moves in power. Ahmad pointed to Wu’s support for dismantling the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, one of 80 multi-agency “fusion centers” that sprouted across the country during the ‘war on terror’ and whose surveillance operations continue to raise concerns about government waste and violations of civil liberties.

“Mayor Wu has actually taken a stance that she supports abolishing the Boston Regional Intelligence Center, which would be huge,” Ahmad said. “That would be the first fusion center in the country to be abolished.”

The need for new leadership seems to have complicated—and slowed down—the pace of police reform in Boston. Dennis White, who replaced outgoing police commissioner William Gross last January, was suspended within 48 hours of taking office over a domestic violence allegation and fired in June. Wu has since launched a national search for the city’s new top cop.

Local civil rights attorney and activist Carl Williams said that whoever Wu picks should be an outsider; traditionally, Boston’s police leadership has come from within the ranks.

“Boston is an old guard, old city—you look at all the chiefs and commissioners, these are people who started as patrol officers, they've never worked anywhere else,” Williams said.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell, a lifelong Bostonian who also ran against Wu for mayor, said the clock is ticking for police reform in Boston. After over a year of scandal and without clear leadership, she said Boston’s police are suffering from a loss of credibility in the communities they patrol. “If you have this lack of trust, lack of transparency, and most importantly, accountability, it erodes trust within the community and it makes it difficult for officers as well as residents, both players, to do their jobs effectively and to have true community policing,” she said.

Black Boston’s Washington said she wants to see concrete proposals from the mayor and other city politicians to make departmental change a reality.

“I want actionable items,” Washington told me. “I don't want to just hear ‘our hope is, defund the police by this much.’ What are the steps, when is this going to happen?… I want to hear that.”