Five candidates vying to be Boston’s next mayor came together — virtually — Tuesday night for the first forum of the 2021 race to discuss their plans on everything from affordable housing to good government to education.
However, one subject consumed the event from the beginning: Police reform.
The 105-minute Zoom forum unexpectedly took place in the shadow of both national and local police stories Tuesday afternoon: The conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the nationally-watched murder case of George Floyd and the release of the internal investigation file of former Boston police officer Patrick Rose over allegations that he sexually assaulted children.
Chauvin’s guilty verdict resulted in Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who is running for a full term, withdrawing from the forum to meet with local leaders and hold a press conference to commend the decision and push for further police reform. And while the five other candidates also praised the verdict, they too pointed to Floyd’s murder and the Rose case as illustrative that more police reform work was necessary.
Does that mean reallocating money from the Boston Police Department budget to increase funding and address the root causes of crime?
According to City Councilor Michelle Wu, City Councilor Andrea Campbell, state Rep. Jon Santiago, and former city economic development chief John Barros, the answer was a clear yes.
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, however, defended her singular stance in opposition.
While she said she supported increased investments for social programs, Essaibi George argued it shouldn’t come at the expense of the police budget.
“I do not support defunding the police,” she said. “Chances are, if you’re ending up in our justice system, it’s so many of our other systems that have failed you along the way. And that’s why we need to really invest in those community programs.”
Essaibi George said the city should “decriminalize poverty, substance use disorder, homelessness, and mental illness,” and pointed to her work to increase the number of social workers that help police respond to calls involving mental health problems in Boston from four to 19.
Additionally, she argued that Boston does “not have enough police officers on the street,” noting that — despite former mayor Marty Walsh’s move last summer to reallocate $12 million from the BPD’s $60 million overtime budget — the police department is projected to overrun its overtime budget by at least $15 million for the 2021 fiscal year.
“We need to work to make sure that our Boston Police Department is fully staffed and functioning,” Essaibi George said.
The forum Tuesday, hosted by the Boston Ward 4 and 5 Democratic Committees, comes a week after Janey presented the city’s municipal budget, which included a $21 million — or roughly 33 percent — cut to the BPD overtime budget. To do so, city officials are proposing a 30-officer increase to the police force, bringing the total number of BPD officers to 2,288, while also increasing cadet recruits by 20 and expediting the return-to-work process for injured officers.
However, in a Boston Globe opinion piece Tuesday, Campbell knocked Janey for the budget, which she said “retreats” from the proposed 10 percent cut to the BPD’s overall budget that they both supported on the City Council last summer (city officials say this year’s budget development process began in January when Walsh, the current labor secretary, was still in office).
Still, Campbell says the city should be moving more aggressively to pare down the BPD budget. Her police reform plan continues to call for that 10 percent cut — or roughly $50 million — to the BPD budget.
“I would redirect that $50 million to the root causes of violence — trauma, mental health, moving people out of poverty — critically important because police alone cannot solve the issue of violence in the city of Boston,” Campbell said. “It has to be done in partnership with community-based organizations, and folks who have been doing the work on the ground and the community for a really long time.”
Wu, Santiago, and Barros also said they would reallocate money from the BPD budget, though they did not provide specific numbers. Wu and Barros also said they would push to eliminate the role of school resource officers at Boston Public Schools.
Barros said he would reallocate BPD funds to “set up a new public agency with trained professionals” to respond to calls involving mental health issues, substance abuse, and domestic violence.
“We have to have seamlessness, and then we need to make sure that those professionals show up in a way that is trained for de-escalation,” he said. “And if they need police, they can call police. But we’ve got to make sure that police aren’t answering those calls.”
Wu — who has pushed to create an alternative line to direct nonviolent 911 calls in Boston to social workers — said the city needs to be “structurally changing” the BPD, including reallocated funds for mental health and community stabilization.
“At the end of the day, having accountability once something has gone wrong, is already too late,” she said. “This is about truly creating prosperity, stability, opportunity for our communities.”
Santiago also pledged that his budget, as mayor, would “include a reduction in demand of police services to reallocate them to more public health-oriented priorities,” including a community crisis diversion program. As an emergency room physician, Santiago noted that he often works “hand in hand with the BPD” to help people dealing with mental health or substance use issues.
“The police don’t want to be doing that,” he said.
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