Police body camera footage showing Boston police officers bragging about attacking protesters in May was not enough to convince Mayor Marty Walsh to sign an ordinance this week restricting the department’s use of force against demonstrators.
Walsh on Tuesday announced that he had vetoed legislation that would have imposed strict regulations on police use of rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray against protesters.
“Mayor Walsh’s veto to this legislation is a failure of leadership when this is an opportunity to establish clear restrictions on lethal crowd control weapons and greater accountability in policing,” said City Councilor Andrea Campbell, an outspoken advocate for police reform in the city. “I’ll keep pushing to pass this ordinance because this is the kind of action and leadership this moment requires.”
In a letter dated Dec. 31, the mayor told the City Council that although he vetoed the ordinance, there is “broad-based agreement” between his administration, the council, and the department that “only appropriate and necessary measures ever be employed to prevent violence or rioting and ensure that people can safely and peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights.”
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo wrote the bill Walsh vetoed. He intends to work with the council—which voted 8-5 in favor of the measure, one short of a veto-proof majority—to override the mayor’s rejection. Arroyo noted that councilors could be pressured by constituents ahead of municipal elections to help the effort.
“We will certainly be moving to have it passed and to override the veto,” Arroyo said. “We need one vote and it’s an election year.”
In a statement to The Appeal, City Councilor Michelle Wu echoed Arroyo’s comments.
“After weeks of urging from City Councilors and community members to sign this legislation protecting the public at demonstrations, Mayor Walsh has chosen to veto these protections,” Wu said. “It’s an insult to the activism and organizing that defined 2020, and falls far short of the transformational leadership that Boston deserves.”
The mayor’s office said Walsh vetoed the bill because it infringed on Police Commissioner William Gross’s authority to make rules for the department and regulations would be legally questionable to apply to outside departments or State Police helping in the city. State law already requires officers from outside the city to abide by laws and regulations within the city, Arroyo said.
Nick Martin, the mayor’s chief communications officer, told The Appeal in an interview that Walsh believes the city should ask the department to adhere to a statewide criminal justice reform bill signed into law on Dec. 31 and that the ordinance from the council was too restrictive.
”In practice, the police commissioner here and the command staff need the authority to make decisions on the ground level that aren’t necessarily feasible based on the parameters that the City Council ordinance was putting forward,” Martin said.
While rejecting the regulations on police behavior, Walsh celebrated a second bill he signed this week creating an Office of Police Accountability and Transparency. That legislation, “together with the statewide police reform bill recently signed into law, will further advance our work to build a more equitable and just city for everyone,” the mayor said in a statement provided to The Appeal.
Martin cited that bill’s signing, a promise that Gross would meet with the council to discuss the department’s policies, and the ongoing police investigation into officers’ behavior the night of May 31 as indications that the city was taking the revelations from the videos seriously. He declined to detail any concrete changes that would occur in the absence of the ordinance’s passage.
“I don’t want to presuppose outcomes,” Martin said. “But there could be a new sort of ordinance that comes out of that conversation, there could be some method for codifying the parameters that are within the statewide police reform bill in Boston.”
Copies of the body camera videos, exclusively released to The Appeal by attorney Carl Williams, showed a chaotic scene from the May demonstrations where police officers attacked protesters and bragged about running them down.
“I think the footage just confirms there’s still much work to be done,” Campbell told The Appeal. “Of course, I didn’t need to see the footage to know that our department needed to do a lot more in terms of accountability and transparency.”
Williams, who is representing a number of demonstrators arrested that night, obtained over 66 hours of body camera video as part of a discovery file.
The May 31 protest was organized by local activist group Black Boston. Co-founder Toiell Washington told The Appeal in late December that although she welcomed the potential for change from city government, she was skeptical of how far any reform efforts would go.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a huge shift because everyone already knew what type of crime the police were on and what they would do—we all knew,” Washington said.
Walsh, days after publication of The Appeal’s report on the footage, told WBUR’s Tiziana Dearing that “officers were hurt that night and it got way out of control,” one of several comments seen by Campbell and others as implying the police were at least partially justified in their behavior.
“He got that terribly wrong.” Campbell said of the mayor’s comments to WBUR.
Walsh’s office did not make the mayor available for an interview for this article.
In one clip provided to The Appeal from the May 31 protest, a sergeant is seen bragging to other officers about hitting demonstrators, a story he changed once he realized he was being recorded.
That sergeant, the Boston Globe reported on Dec. 30, is Clifton McHale, a 23-year member of the force. It would not be the sergeant’s first brush with controversy. According to the Globe, McHale was found to have “sexually assaulted a highly intoxicated woman” in 2005 and served a one-year suspension after an investigation.
In a statement provided to The Appeal, Gross confirmed a sergeant had been suspended after the video’s release, but did not disclose the identity of the suspended sergeant.
“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,” Gross said. “I want to encourage people to bring these matters to our attention so that we can investigate them appropriately.”
To Arroyo’s dismay, other portions of the footage haven’t been met with the same sort of proactive response, and language excusing the police continues to come out of City Hall.
“This is what I’ve been so upset about with the public commentary around this,” Arroyo told The Appeal in December. “There’s no justification for describing in detail somewhat gleefully the act of hitting multiple people with your vehicle. There’s no justification for that. You’re not going to find it even with more context, because it does not exist. That’s not justifiable contextually.”
To Wu, the fact that it took The Appeal’s report and the release of the footage to get action on well-documented abuses from the summer is not a ringing endorsement of the city’s approach to policing. Wu noted that the footage lines up with contemporaneous allegations of misbehavior that were suppressed by the city’s resistance to releasing video and police reports.
“It took investigative journalism and lawsuits and external forces to force what should have been leadership and accountability from the top,” Wu told The Appeal in December.
“Accountability alone does not solve the issue,” Wu added. “This is about the need for structural changes and cultural change within public safety to really ensure that we are focused on the ways in which the city can affirmatively create safety and health for every community.”
Reform advocates and other activists have used the footage and reporting to continue their efforts to change the city’s approach to policing by targeting the misconduct captured on tape. The sheer breadth of misbehavior captured in the videos is forcing city leaders to take action.
“I think what people in the streets, what organizers, what organizations have done with this is really great,” Williams said. “It looks like there’s going to be more potential legal action, possibly administrative action from the attorney general’s office or legal action probably from the attorney general’s office and from the district attorney’s office. And I’m not super hopeful of it, but possibly from the Boston Police Department itself.”
Williams cited the systemic issues around policing and a culture that permits violence against the public as challenges ahead.
“This is always an uphill battle because we’re fighting against legal structures, institutional and cultural structures that are white supremacist, that defend the idea that it’s OK, it’s acceptable—or that it’s excusable,” Williams said. “And those are difficult things to fight against because they’ve existed in this country since its founding.”