Commentary - Balancing reform and good policing: A Boston Police officer's perspective

Eddy Chrispin

Since George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police officers, we have seen a public outcry for change in policing that has evolved into an international discourse on systemic racism and resulted in the world scrutinizing American society and culture.

In the midst of all these conversations, I have seen extremes at both ends of the spectrum – those calling for the abolishment of the police and those who see the police as always competent and justified in all their actions. The predominant view, as of late, has been advocacy for defunding the police.

People clearly know —or at least they should know— that the call to abolish the police is absurd and irresponsible. If they were to listen to a police scanner and experience the volume, variety, and seriousness of the calls received, they would quickly realize that the police are a necessary part of the social contract.

As for those who think that the police can do no wrong, the video of George Floyd taking his last breath while under the knees of a police officer and countless other police incidents speak for themselves.

With respect to defunding the police, this also falls short of its desired goals, whatever they may be. We are part of a society where the burden of almost every single social problem falls on the police. Officers are dispatched to a wide variety of calls such as: misbehaving child(ren), gang violence, emotionally disturbed persons, missing persons, domestic violence, loud music, fireworks, homelessness, drug addiction, and a host of other issues.

There is no other agency, public or private, that deals with all of these problems 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So, in thinking of defunding the police, we must be careful lest we minimize services to those communities most in need of it.

Can we truly address these issues and rid policing of racist stereotypes associated with Black/Brown people if we have not meaningfully engaged society at large? As a Black man, I can tell you about my many experiences with discrimination, ranging from being followed in a department store to being stopped by the police simply “because,” notwithstanding my educational achievements, financial status, or profession.

Ask any person of color and you will find our stories similar. The common theme is that we are judged by the color of our skin, which generally does not bode well for us. Race is often the determinant of how one is treated in this country, and to that end, we must address this as a country. I venture to say that unless and until we are able to deal effectively with the topic of race, we will continue to have these problems in policing because police officers are recruited from the human pool that is America. Police departments are microcosms of society and all its “isms.”

State Senate Bill S.2800— which passed last week by a 30-7 vote— proposes to make several changes in policing that would hopefully minimize and/or negate the instances of negative and violent interactions between police officers and Black/Brown people. It would create a standardized curriculum for police officers and a licensing board to hear cases where officers have been accused of misconduct. Additionally, it would bar choke-holds except in the rare instances where there are no other available means and create a duty to intervene when officers observe another officer engaged in misconduct.

My fellow members of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO) and I take issue with the limitation of qualified immunity and due process rights in the Senate bill. Historically, officers have been afforded the right of qualified immunity when they acted reasonably in the performance of their duties. The landmark Supreme Court case Harlow v. Fitzgerald (1982) ruled that qualified immunity is a necessary compromise between the need to provide remedies to individuals whose constitutional rights have been violated and the necessity of protecting public officials from “[i]nsubstantial lawsuits” which may deter them [police officers] from carrying out their official responsibilities.”

MAMLEO stands firmly with the idea that those who behave in a criminal manner in their interaction with the public should not be given the title or honor of wearing the badge, and that, in some instances, they should be prosecuted for their actions. By the same token, we know all too well the role that our members and others in the profession play in securing the safety and security of members of society.

We can ill afford legislation that limits our ability to catch those who would do harm to our loved ones, friends, and neighbors. The Legislature must think hard and long lest it hurt the very same communities that this bill is designed to help.

In the instance of due process, the Senate legislation would limit officers to a hearing before the commission formed by the bill to determine if their license will be revoked and one additional appeal hearing before the Civil Service Commission. From the perspective of MAMLEO and its members, there is no need to limit an officer’s right to appeal to a court where those individuals deemed most capable of setting aside their biases can listen to the facts and circumstances and make a fair and reasoned decision. We should trust in the judicial process and allow officers to appeal revocation of their license and let judges review the decisions of the board and the Civil Service Commission.

The questions of a limitation on qualified immunity and due process rights mentioned in parts of the bill concern me. As the president of an organization that understands the need for reform in policing and the issue of systemic racism, we stand aligned with those who want change. But we say that this legislation cannot, and should not, be a rushed product.

Given the opportunity it offers to effect real change, there is no reasonable explanation as to why the Senate bill has not been the subject of any public hearings. Nor did the Senate take time to gain insight into how this bill would affect members of the same group that they aim to protect and serve (Black and Brown people), unless we (Black and Brown officers) do not count when in uniform. Our battles against systemic racism on behalf of officers of color throughout the state are well documented and have been the subject of numerous media stories and legal battles.

The failure by most members of the Legislature to engage in meaningful research by way of public hearings and consultation was a lost opportunity. Conversations with members of the community and officers of color would have substantially improved the final bill.

The need to have good police officers in our neighborhoods and hold them accountable for their behavior while allowing them to do their jobs in a respectful, community-oriented manner is not a contradiction. The deterioration of qualified immunity will limit and deter officers from police work intended to minimize fear and increase safety in our communities. There are those who want you to believe that there are no genuine bonds between our officers and the community. But I can assure you that most people welcome the presence of police officers to protect their families from community violence.

Police reform is at the forefront of the conversation on systemic racism because of a clearly abhorrent and disgusting police action in Minneapolis. I am wary of the hyper-focus on police because of the potential for people to lose sight of real systemic change. That change must happen, but we cannot allow it to happen without tackling major issues like education, employment, economic opportunity, and political empowerment.

True change against systemic racism may start with the police, but it cannot be the end point.

Eddy Chrispin, a Mattapan native who lives in Hyde Park, is the president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers (MAMLEO). He is a sergeant in the Boston Police Department.

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