Commentary: Reinventing law enforcement in Boston

Many people who hear calls to “defund” or “abolish” the police may have the impression that these are demands to eliminate law enforcement altogether.  That is incorrect. The intent is to reinvent law enforcement in a new institutional framework that would help to eliminate the abuses that many in our society endure from policing as-it-is.  Approaching the problem in a new way would also save money and free up resources that our neighborhoods desperately need. 

We can do this.  In fact, we already have some valuable experience in our Commonwealth in reorganizing and rebuilding a public agency from the ground up.

In the 1980s, when the state was preparing to launch a multi-billion dollar program to clean up Boston Harbor, the Legislature created an independent agency to oversee the project. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) replaced the old Metropolitan District Commission (MDC) in running and maintaining our water infrastructure.   

Existing MDC employees working in the water system were guaranteed jobs in the new MWRA, along with new hires, and with increased wages and a more thorough emphasis on good management, training, and workforce professionalism. Unions retained recognition at the MWRA, but new contracts were negotiated that still included a grievance procedure and impartial arbitration of disputes. Negotiations weren’t always easy, but ultimately the MWRA workers and the public benefited.

The results are clear every time you visit our now cleaned-up beaches or open the tap at home to the highest quality of drinking water available anywhere. At the MWRA we successfully reinvented our water management. We can do the same with policing.
Here are some suggestions as to how that could be accomplished.

1) Abolish the existing Boston Police Department and reallocate its law enforcement responsibilities to a new agency. Perhaps call it the Boston Department of Public Safety and build it with institutionalized community oversight from the start.

2) Guarantee jobs in the new department to current employees of the Boston Police, but with mandatory re-training; establish new rules and protocols to assure community-sensitive law enforcement; expand compensation for additional off-the-job training and education; maintain union recognition for negotiations and protecting the rights of workers.  Veteran police employees who are reluctant to work in a new law enforcement culture should be incentivized to retire.

3) Institute higher pay along with increased professionalism of law enforcement personnel, while placing limits on the amount of overtime and private detail hours that are outside the core mission of the department.

4) De-militarize the police, including not only the removal of inappropriate war-making equipment but also the phasing out and replacing of job titles like “captain”, “lieutenant” and “sergeant” that imply military hierarchy rather than a community-oriented mission to protect and serve.

5) Decriminalize minor offenses with citations rather than arrests, shrink the prisons and free up resources in our city for schools, mental health counseling, substance-addiction treatment, and affordable housing.

Local reforms should be part of a national effort to de-militarize on the federal level as well.  We don’t need heavily armed national police units all out of proportion to the actual criminal threats we face. Nor do we need to maintain a gigantic worldwide military machine with over 800 foreign bases that have little to do with actually safeguarding Americans. A retrenchment of our global military posture would not only involve us in fewer military conflicts abroad, but allow reductions in the approximately $1 trillion we spend annually on “defense” to be redirected toward needs that actually make us more secure at home.

Peace at home is strengthened by peace abroad. Here, we should remember the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. from more than 50 years ago when he spoke out against the Vietnam war: “As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men… I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so …if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

If we want a just society that works for everyone, we cannot remain silent either.

Jeff Klein is a member of Dorchester People for Peace and retired president of a union local at the MWRA.

Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter