Newly unearthed body camera footage captured by Boston police during the demonstrations protesting racial injustice and police brutality in May shows officers using force against nonviolent protesters, pepper-spraying crowds, and, in one instance, speaking about hitting protesters with a car.
The clips are at the center of a report published Friday by The Appeal, a national online news and commentary website that focuses on how the legal system, policies, and politics affect the country’s most vulnerable populations.
The footage was an exclusive for the outlet, which says it was given the videos by Carl Williams, an attorney representing some of the protesters who were arrested during the protests overnight between May 31 and early on June 1. Williams received 44 videos — over 66 hours of body camera footage — as part of a discovery file, according to the publication.
The demonstrations — an outcry after George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis — in downtown Boston that day were largely peaceful until later that night, when the situation grew aggressive with cases of looting and vandalism reported. In all, 53 people were arrested by police, 18 bystanders were hospitalized, and nine officers were treated for nonlife-threatening injuries.
Police Commissioner William Gross, the following day, remarked that some protesters “came hellbent on destroying our city.” He praised officers who “said, ‘No one is going to take over our city and burn it to the ground.'”
The videos published Friday show officers pushing nonviolent demonstrators to the ground apparently unprovoked, spraying pepper spray on individuals and into crowds to force them back, and one department member explaining how he possibly hit people with a car on Tremont Street.
In that instance, the officer whose camera is recording the remarks walks away so his colleague is no longer in frame and says, “This thing is on!”
“It’s this mob mentality,” Williams told The Appeal regarding the police behavior. “And I use ‘mob’ as a sort of a double entendre—mob like the mafia and mob like a group of a pack of wild people roaming the streets looking to attack people.”
Several local officials and advocates have raised questions about and condemned the actions depicted on video, including Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins.
“I have not watched the entire video, but the snippets that I have seen are incredibly troubling,” Rollins told the outlet.
She said the clips have been shared with her team of special prosecutors.
Boston Police Sgt. Det. John Boyle told Boston.com Friday the department has opened an internal affairs investigation on “what the report brought to our attention” but could not provide additional comment because of the ongoing probe.
Update: Late Friday night, Gross, the Boston police commissioner, issued the following statement: “As soon as these videos were brought to my attention, I immediately ordered my Bureau of Professional Standards to open and conduct a thorough and fair investigation into this matter, and the totality of circumstances involved. I have placed a Sergeant involved in this incident on administrative leave and I will take any additional action as necessary at the conclusion of the investigation. I want to encourage people to bring these matters to our attention so that we can investigate them appropriately.”
Here are a few key clips and what local leaders are saying about them:
‘I’m f***ing hitting people with the car.’
Video contains graphic language.
In one clip, a police sergeant approaches an officer whose camera is rolling in Downtown Crossing.
“Dude, I f***ing drove down Tremont (Street). There was an unmarked state police cruiser they were all gathered around,” the sergeant says on video. “…Then I had a f***er keep coming, f***ing running. I’m f***ing hitting people with the car, did you hear me, I was like, ‘get the f***—’”
The officer equipped with the body camera then pushes the sergeant’s face away from the camera, turns, and walks away from him. He looks back and says, “This (thing) is on.”
The sergeant replies: “Oh, no no no, I know, what I’m saying is, though, that they were in front, like, I didn’t hit anybody, like, just driving. They’re throwing s***. My windows were closed, the s*** was coming in.”
A few moments later, the officer says, “This thing just f***ing went on automatically.”
“This individual appears to be taking pleasure in the fact that this happened or is gloating,” Rollins told The Appeal. “I’m a member of law enforcement now as an elected district attorney, and I’m not proud of that when I see that. And I want to be proud of the behavior that we see with law enforcement moving forward.”
‘Start spraying the f***ers.’
Video contains graphic language and images of violence.
Several videos show police unleashing cans of pepper spray on crowds and people at close range. Warnings to individuals beforehand, if any were made by police, are not included in the video compilation.
In one incident, a man walking towards officers with his hands up is sprayed in the face.
“Start spraying the f***ers,” an officer is heard saying in another video recorded near Boston Common.
In a third clip, after officers formed a line to try to push demonstrators down Washington Street, one officer is heard saying, “(You) gotta start spraying more.”
Moments later, he says, “I want to hit this a**hole,” gesturing to someone in the crowd. “….I want to hit this kid.”
Video contains violence.
Some moments caught on the body cameras show officers knocking nonviolent demonstrators over with batons.
“Move!,” says one officer as he hits a woman, who had her hands up, to the ground and then steps over her on Boston Common around 2:44 a.m. on June 1.
In another clip, a person starts a moped scooter and appears to head in the same direction as retreating crowds before an officer shoves the driver off the vehicle.
As The Appeal notes, some demonstrators were targeted for using violence, such as when one kicked a tear gas canister back toward authorities near the Common.
“Let’s get this f***er. Let’s get him,” one officer says as a bicycle patrol moves toward the suspect. “Lock him up.”
How officials and advocates have responded to the videos
District Attorney Rachel Rollins
In a statement to Boston.com Friday afternoon, a spokesperson for Rollins’s office said: “The office is aware of the videos and is investigating them further. Several of the videos present troubling scenes that merit further examination, which is what the office is doing. DA Rollins takes this very seriously.”
In other comments to The Appeal, Rollins said residents should feel they can trust her when reporting police wrongdoing:
“I want people to feel comfortable sending that information to me. I want people to feel comfortable enough filing a complaint with the Boston Police Department if that is the entity that engaged in, you know, problematic at best, criminal at worst behavior. And if they don’t feel comfortable, I want them to file it with me or one of their Boston city councilors to get it to my attention. And we will review everything.”
Mayor Marty Walsh
The mayor released the following statement Friday:
“This footage is difficult to watch, and begs answers to many questions that I expect to be answered through an Internal Affairs investigation. We never want to see police officers using more force than necessary, even when tensions are high. These types of situations are also exactly why we are implementing body worn cameras for all police officers, and why we convened a police reform task force committed to bringing necessary reforms and accountability to the police department. We remain optimistic that through the reforms we are instituting, such as the Internal Affairs Oversight Panel for the Boston Police Department and in our review of the Office of Police Accountability language, that we will bring to life the reforms we know are needed.”
City Councilor and mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell
In a statement Friday, Campbell pointed to the videos as more reasons for why Walsh should immediately sign three police reform measures sent to his desk by the City Council this week.
Campbell and fellow councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia collaborated with Walsh’s administration over the past month on an ordinance that, if enacted, would create the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, which would have subpoena power to investigate alleged cases of police misconduct.
Campbell and Arroyo were also behind a second of those three proposals, one that would restrict how police can use equipment such as tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets. They filed the ordinance in response to the May 31 incidents.
“Mayor Walsh has legislation from the City Council on his desk to create enforceable restrictions on police use of tear gas and to create true civilian oversight through a new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency. He can sign them today,” Campbell said the statement. “As a Black woman and someone who has listened to constituents detail their traumatic interactions with police, I didn’t need to see George Floyd’s murder or this footage to realize that our police department needed to create stronger systems of accountability and transparency.”
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo
Arroyo also pointed to the need to pass the reform measures, especially in light of the body camera videos.
“This footage, and all of the footage in this article, is why Mayor Walsh needs to sign the ordinances before him,” Arroyo wrote in a tweet. “‘It doesn’t happen here’ is demonstrably untrue.”
This footage, and all of the footage in this article, is why Mayor Walsh needs to sign the ordinances before him.
“It doesn’t happen here” is demonstrably untrue.
Refrains of “Obama once said” is no replacement for codified protections and regulations.
One abuse is too many. https://t.co/R4OT9geU41
— Ricardo Arroyo (@RicardoNArroyo) December 18, 2020
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley
According to The Appeal, the outlet showed Pressley’s office portions of the videos that were published. The Boston Democrat issued a statement to the outlet:
“The inexcusable actions of officers in these disturbing videos make painfully clear why our communities are standing up, speaking out and demanding decisive action to combat the public health crisis that is police brutality in our nation. We can and must advance bold and systemic policy change at all levels of government to bring an end to the toxic culture of police impunity that has fueled these abuses and begin to legislate true justice and healing for our communities.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
The ACLU of Massachusetts, which was also quoted in The Appeal report, has been trying to get ahold of information about Boston police practices and communications with federal law enforcement under public records laws for the past two years.
In August, the organization filed a lawsuit against the department and City of Boston demanding the release of several records, including “requests regarding the BPD’s use of force during recent racial justice demonstrations in Boston,” the ACLU says.
In a statement to Boston.com, Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts said:
“Contrary to the claims by police unions and other opponents of meaningful reform, Massachusetts is not immune to police misconduct and police violence—including against Black and brown people. These disturbing videos show exactly why strong police reform is needed in Massachusetts now. Just steps from the State House, a police officer admittedly drove his vehicle into peaceful protestors and, after realizing he had been caught on tape bragging about it, falsely alleged that it was because demonstrators acted violently. Local police repeatedly and with apparent relish battered demonstrators, including with batons and pepper spray. It’s time for systemic change and an end to policing as usual.”
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