A more diverse Boston police?

February 6, 2014

Some Bostonians believe that having more Black police officers will fundamentally transform the police department. Sofia Arias explains while they're wrong.

AFTER YEARS of complaints against former Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis for racial discrimination within the police force, the current commissioner under newly elected Mayor Marty Walsh, William Evans, appointed a Black police officer for superintendent-in-chief, making him the highest-ranking African American in the department's history.

Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross was joined by six other Black, Latino and Asian appointees, comprising half of the department's new command staff. With a city population estimated to be more than 50 percent Black and Latino, police and politicians hailed the diversification of the top command staff as a step forward in Boston's racial history.

The Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO) put out a statement in response to the appointments, commenting, "A diverse command staff, reflective of the city of Boston and its Police Department, is a vital component in not only fostering community confidence, but also in improving department morale."

Boston's Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross
Boston's Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross

MAMLEO's own history with City Hall over the past decade was one of growing frictions with the police commissioner over discrimination in the ranking and promotions of white officers over Black officers, culminating in the group of officers taking a vote of no confidence in the leadership in the commissioner last August.

In the months before former Mayor Thomas Menino resigned from his 20-year rule in Boston, city politicians and Black political leaders weighed in with greater frequency demanding diversification of the Boston Police Department (BPD).

City Councilor Mike Ross declared, "If you have a police department that at its core relies on the trust of the community and that police department doesn't reflect the community that it serves, by definition, it's going to struggle to have the type of relationship it needs to effectively do its job."

Boston NAACP President Michael Curry tied the racism of the leadership to the racial profiling of young Black people in Boston. But will replacing the chairs on the deck of the BPD's command ship change this? Will the call for changing the structure at the top make for a kinder, more benevolent, less racist and violent police force? And is any of this new to the city of Boston?

The strategy of the Black police officers who compose the ranks of MAMLEO is not one of a decisive anti-racist break, but a desire for the return and expansion of better days for those officers--which were also some of the worst in the history of Boston for the rest of the Black community.

On October 7, 2012, a radio show hosted by MAMLEO invited former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn and Police Commissioner Francis "Mickey" Roache. The tone from the host and from caller after caller was deep admiration for the former mayor and police commissioner.

The Black and Brown officers who called in waxed nostalgic over a time when Black officers were integrated into positions of power, in contrast to their positions during Menino's tenure. Former Deputy Superintendent William Celester, now retired, was one of the Black police officers promoted to command positions during this time, and called in to praise Roache for promoting him as Commander of Area B, which covered the majority Black neighborhoods of Roxbury, Mattapan and parts of Dorchester.

In particular, he stressed gratitude for the Commissioner allowing him to be a commander "without interference," going as far as to say he would campaign to get Roache reappointed if that was possible.

There was no mention in the one-hour segment of Boston's violent stop-and-frisk program during this time, and of the manhunt that accompanied the Carol Stuart murder. Flynn mentioned in passing "the infamous Charles Stuart case that tested the city," only to convey how much praise he had received from the Nation of Islam for his leadership. The eruption of anger at the racist lynch mob frenzy that shook Boston that year was never mentioned.


"Get the Animals Responsible"

Ray Flynn was elected mayor of Boston in 1984 in the aftermath of the anti-busing crisis when racist white mobs organized to stop the desegregation of Boston Public Schools and attacked Black children sent to schools in South Boston and Charlestown.

Previously a supporter of the anti-busing movement, Flynn calculated that he needed to change his position and tack left to defeat his rival, civil rights leader and Rainbow Coalition candidate Mel King. Flynn won the votes of a fraction of Black Bostonians, and replaced the former Police Commissioner Joseph M. Jordan after a string of police murders of several Black people over the previous three years.

Outrage over the killings of Elijah Pate, Levi Hart, Braxton Mitchell and Alex Valentin led to Flynn's payment of several wrongful death claims against the city, and the appointment of Commissioner Roache.

Using the federal consent decree to expand the number of police jobs given to Blacks, Roache hired more Black officers and appointed a few to command positions, including Richard Cox, Pervis Ryan, Joseph Carter, James Claiborne and William Celester.

With the national "war on drugs" declared, it was always going to be open season on Black America, no matter what changes happened for a few Black officers in the department. During Flynn's second term in office, Boston instituted a stop-and-frisk program, known as stop and search, a policy that State Superior Court Judge Cortland A. Mathers called "a proclamation of martial law in Roxbury for a narrow class of people, young Blacks."

Rolando Carr, a 30-year-old demolition worker, was stopped outside his housing project, searched, shot and wounded when he tried to reach for the keys in his pocket. Kenneth Lowe, a 25-year-old sheet metal worker, was searched at gunpoint, forced to lie in a puddle of urine and searched because he wore a New York Giants T-shirt--policed claimed it was associated with a gang.

The BPD's stop-and-frisk policies set the stage for whipping up the city's lynch mob hysteria. One week after the city's Black elected officials called on Gov. Michael Dukakis to investigate the program, the murder of a pregnant white woman, Carol Stuart, gripped the city.

Her husband and killer, Charles Stuart, was able to effectively convince the city that a Black man in the Mission Hill neighborhood had shot him and killed his wife, driving a manhunt in which the police raided homes and streets, stopping, stripping and frisking Black men all over the city.

Mayor Flynn said in a press conference, despite questions and doubts about the details of Stuart's story, that they would "get the animals responsible." Police Commissioner Roache mobilized every detective in the city to the case. The media whipped up the racist narrative about the tragic suburban white "Camelot Couple" on their way to a birthing class at a hospital, who were attacked by a Black man on crack.

Although the crime rate at Mission Hill--the neighborhood where Stuart had parked the car and murdered his wife--had declined by 18 percent over the past year, the neighborhood was placed under total siege, and the hysteria over crime that engulfed the nation during those years made every Black man in Boston public enemy number one. Phyllis Evans from Dorchester spoke to Socialist Worker, recalling the events of that year:

My son was 19. He was working full-time for the MBTA [Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority]. He was just driving down the street. It happened to him and my cousins who lived in Roxbury. My cousin was stopped and frisked two times. Automatic suspects as Black men. My son was highly insulted. He felt that he was a citizen just like everyone else. Why should he be singled out as a man of color? It was business as usual: Black people should know where they stand.

Days before Willie Bennett, the man accused of the murder, was to be charged, Stuart's brother confessed that he knew that Charles had killed his wife for a life insurance policy. After the truth of the crime emerged, Black Boston's outrage and anger over the siege on their neighborhoods shredded Flynn's perceived immaculate reputation within the Black community.

A sign drawing international comparisons of racist brutality at one press conference demanding the resignation of Police Commissioner Roache read, "What does Boston and South Africa have in common? Stopping and detaining men because of the color of their skin." The city never apologized or compensated its Black residents.

Ray Flynn rejected calls for the resignation of Roache. Years later, he would still say, "I had total and complete confidence in my investigators." The record isn't clear on whether Black police officers ever protested against this. Indeed, MAMLEO's silence 23 years later and their adulation for the former mayor and police commissioner would indicate that members never spoke out on this part of his record.

After Flynn's appointed Black night-time commander, Willis D. Saunders Jr., passed away in 2012, then-Boston NAACP President Louis Elisa recalled what his position was on the Charles Stuart case: "Saunders was in a leadership position and trying to be focused. He still had to take orders from his superiors."

And then there were those in direct administration of the Areas. In the aftermath, a state commission was set up to investigate invasive and illegal searches conducted on Boston's Black population during the Charles Stuart case. The St. Clair Commission found that nearly a third of the misconduct complaints made against Boston Police in 1989 and 1990 were those of physical abuse.

A review of 1989-90 cases found that 50 percent of the complainants were Black, and 9 percent were "non-black racial and ethnic minorities." In 1989, the BPD sustained only 6.6 percent of the complaints it resolved, and in 1990, even less, at 4.4 percent.

Area B generated the highest number, at 26 percent, of the total number of complaints. This was the area under the command of William Celester, who, if we are to take his word, was given full authority as commander to work "without interference" from the mayor or police commissioner.


Enforcing the New Jim Crow

Demands for integrated and diverse police departments came out of the struggles of the civil rights movement, along with other affirmative action policies in employment and education. But rather than improving and holding police accountable to the communities they policed, they joined the arm of the state whose purpose is the protection of the interests of capitalists and their right to privately own property.

Historically, the origins of the police in this country were among the slave-catchers. Throughout their history, they have functioned as strikebreakers and government spies, their primary role in society one of social control of the masses against the elite who rule over them.

In the context of the New Jim Crow, the expansion of positions for a minority of Black people within the police coincided with the launching of the "war on drugs" in the 1980s on Black communities across the country, in a vicious backlash against all the gains of the civil rights movement.

Today, the racially coded calls for "law and order" and "personal responsibility" have continued to sustain justifications for a whopping 800 percent increase in the federal prison population since 1980 as a result of 30 years of sustained attacks on Black communities.

Although they may come from working-class backgrounds and may live in the same neighborhoods that they patrol, and although they may and do face racism, sexism and homophobia internally, the interests of individual police officers are tied to the protection of their police departments.

Although they have their own unions, unlike the interests of other workers like teachers and nurses, whose improved working conditions also improve the conditions of the people they teach or care for, an improvement in the working conditions of the police protects and strengthens the institution they serve, and the repressive force it uses within society.

Demands for better pay, more weapons, more vehicle and foot patrols and more promotions are demands for better coercive powers for the entire police force. Police officers do not compose a social group that fights for social justice issues.

Policies that undermine these coercive powers, even just to function as a simple check, are invariably met with great resistance. As Shawn Gude points out in Jacobin:

They've bitterly opposed civilian review boards (and, if established, have sought to undermine them). They've fought the placement of names and badge numbers on officer uniforms. They've resisted rooting out police misconduct.

This explains the narrowness with which racial justice is defined with respect to the officers of MAMLEO. When MAMLEO campaigns, even if it is on the question of greater safety and an end to violence within neighborhoods, it bases its demands only on the ability to be promoted within the BPD and increase the police presence in those communities.

The police, as a whole, will argue for non-solutions to stop violence in the community, like offering to give out cash in gun buyback programs. But the license to arrest and imprison people is never taken away, only expanded.

They will not speak out against the 10,000 new prison units being built within the state over the next seven years, with $2 billion that could be used to fund those same Black neighborhoods facing the violence of poverty, starved of jobs that pay a living wage, and the ability to build vibrant livable communities under crippling austerity measures. To do so would be to make steps toward dissolving the purpose of their livelihoods.

MAMLEO was nowhere to be seen in 2012 when activists rallied against the implementation of a three-strikes law that increased the number of felonies punishable by life in prison without parole from one to 19. This legislation disproportionately impacted Blacks and Latinos in the state they already constitute 55 percent of those in prison, but only 16 percent of the general population.

And MAMLEO are nowhere to be found in discussions of escalating state violence, when the BPD considers ordering new weapons to use on the streets of Boston, like military grade AR-15 semiautomatic rifles. Even as reports show that the crime rate over the past five years has actually gone down, while deadly police shootings are on the rise.

And they did not join the families of police brutality victims like Bo Ramsey-White, who was unarmed and gunned down at a random traffic stop in 2012, and Mark McMullen who was unarmed and shot and killed after a high-speed chase in 2011, while both their BPD murderers were cleared of any wrongdoing.

The appointment of Black officers to command positions in the BPD won't make for a kinder police force, more attentive to the needs of their respective communities. The trajectory of police militarization and prison expansion points to the opposite.

It simply ensures that in a time of budget cuts, record unemployment for Black people, attacks on public sector unions and increased policing and incarceration, as part of the new Jim Crow, that the face of that execution will have a few more people who are not white, but still blue.

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