In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd this spring in Minneapolis, our City Council has been eager to reform the Boston Police Department. While this won’t reverse the heinous acts by law enforcement that caused cities around the country to erupt in protests and riots, it is a win for those who believe the BPD needs to give its critics a seat at the management table.
Wednesday, the council voted for several police-reform measures, giving the green light to creating an office that includes a civilian review board and internal affairs oversight panel.
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, the public safety chair and lead sponsor the original council version of the civilian review board from June, said during the meeting, “Passing this ordinance would be a win for the city, a major step toward eliminating racial disparities in police while creating greater transparency.”
The council also approved heavy restrictions on the use of chemical agents like pepper spray and tear gas and kinetic means like rubber bullets on protesters. The council voted 8-5 over the heavy objections of the police department, which says this could seriously limit the ability of police to deal with dangerous situations created by unruly crowds.
The police already have restrictions on the use of tear gas and the like – their own experience and judgement.
In an August council meeting on crowd control agents Boston Police Superintendent William Ridge, a police officer since 1983, and said he has been to “hundreds and hundreds” of demonstrations, at some of which force was used.
According to the Boston Sun, he said the only time they have ever used tear gas was at the protest on May 31 of this year.
“It was not a peaceful demonstration; police officers were being attacked,” he said. “We need tools to be able to disperse and disrupt people who are attacking us.”
He said that while the job of the police “is always to protect everybody’s first amendment right to peacefully protest, our officers were attacked with CS gas and pepper spray as well as a number of other projectiles that were coming down towards us.”
Ridge noted that permission to use things like rubber bullets and tear gas “is given strictly at the highest levels.”
“It’s not like we’re out there indiscriminately using this stuff,” he said.
But rioters do act indiscriminately, as evidenced by the May 31 protest in Boston.
That night, some protesters broke off from a massive gathering in front of the State House and smashed windows, set fires and and broke into businesses in Downtown Crossing.
By the early morning, seven Boston police officers had been transported to the hospital, with “several more treated on the street,” as the Herald reported.
Mayor Martin Walsh said that night, “I want to thank the officers of the Boston Police Department and all of the public safety agencies for their professionalism tonight. They are working hard, as they always do, to keep our city safe and treat our residents with respect.”
They did act with professionalism — in the face of physical attacks and mayhem. And if, heaven forbid, other protests erupt at some point in the city’s future, we have confidence they will do so again.
But rioters who set cruisers on fire and hurl bottles at police officers can only be relied on to cause chaos and possible injury. Our police need to have the equipment they need — and the faith in their ability to use it — to keep themselves and the community safe.
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