In cities and towns across the country, the very concept of policing is under fire, and whether you are aware of it or not, Watertown is no exception. It seems that not a week goes by without a bad cop, somewhere, adding fuel to that fire. Whether it’s a veteran cop somehow mistaking her gun for a taser and killing a young Black man, or a bully with a badge pepper-spraying a respectful and compliant Black army lieutenant, anti-police activists need only to say: “See, it happened again and it will keep happening, unless we do something.”
Defund the Police became a popular rallying cry during the racial protest demonstrations resulting from the killing of George Floyd and the killings of too many other Black Americans who died as a result of unwarranted lethal force at the hands of white cops. The video of George Floyd’s murder by Derek Chauvin was absolute gut-wrenching proof that policing in America requires reexamination and overdue reform.
It was only natural that in cities and towns across the nation, residents, including some in Watertown, began asking:
Could that happen here?
Are all police departments inherently racist and populated with cops who believe they are above the law?
Do police departments reflexively protect those in their ranks who commit criminal acts from suffering the consequences?
Across the country, demands for police reform grew louder and more constant. In response to the killings, the slogan, Black Lives Matter began to seem inadequate. As a rallying cry, in an atmosphere filled with so much rage, it lacked teeth.
Defund the Police captured the tone of that anger and came with a plan to remedy the police problem. It also made for a powerful slogan, displayed on protest signs and chanted by marchers.
And it was easy to understand.
Or was it?
The slogan soon ran into problems.
What exactly did it mean? For some, it meant making modest cuts to police department budgets and applying that money to social programs. For others it meant making more radical cuts that would result in fewer cops. And for those at the far end of the spectrum, it meant dissolving police departments and starting over.
In the November 2020 congressional elections, candidates, running in swing districts, who were accused of favoring Defund the Police lost their races. Even before the elections, opinion polls showed that defunding was far less popular than expected in Black communities.
But a Gallup poll, conducted in June and July of 2020, really got to the heart of the matter by the way it phrased the question. It asked: Would you rather the police spend more time, the same amount of time, or less time than they currently spend in your area?
For white respondents, 17% said more time, 71% said the same amount of time and 12% said less time. The fact that 88% were police-favorable should have surprised no one. For Black respondents, 20% said more time, 61% said the same amount of time, and 19% said less time. The fact that 81% were police-favorable caught many defunders off guard − especially in light of the headline-making police killings of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd − to name only the most prominent.
It should be noted however that in the same poll, Black respondents were far less confident than whites that the police would treat them with courtesy and respect.
So how did advocates for defunding the police explain the desire of Black Americans to keep police in their neighborhoods? Their answer was that they had “bought into the myth that the police keep people safe.”
What? It’s a myth that the police keep people safe?
Yes − according to the most radical defunders who call themselves abolitionists and advocate for the abolition of all police departments and the closing of all prisons, which they refer to as the PIC − the Police Industrial Complex.
The Abolish the PIC movement is bigger, more established, and more prominent than you might think. The leaders of the movement know that Divest and Invest is a far more socially acceptable slogan than Abolish the Police, so in areas where residents do believe that police keep them safe, the “A-word” is bad marketing.
Citizens who like their police department but want to see it improved are unlikely to accept reform recommendations or criticism from those whose mission it is to put their police department out of existence. So, in a relatively peaceful community like Watertown, we are most likely to hear calls for Divest & Invest and less likely to hear calls to Abolish the Police. (But, more on that later)
If you are not inclined to study the abolition movement, here’s a quick cheat sheet. There are four main principles shared by its leaders: First: All police departments are inherently racist, and because they were structurally designed to maintain white supremacy and to protect the property of white people, reform is not possible.
Second: Armed police officers are the main cause of violence − not the solution to violence.
Third: The police are ineffective at both preventing and solving crime. (They will provide statistics to prove this, and of course there are statistics proving the opposite.)
Fourth: If all levels of government would allocate enough money to mental health programs and ending poverty, police forces would become obsolete.
One of the intellectual leaders of the police abolition movement, Amna Akbar has written a kind of manifesto, entitled: An Abolitionist Horizon For (Police) Reform.
Under the section heading: Campaigns to Defund, Dismantle, and Delegitimize, she writes this: (The underlining is mine)
“Abolitionists are working for a world without police – and so they are making demands and running experiments that decrease the power, footprint, and legitimacy of police while building alternative modes of responding to needs and interpersonal harm. These efforts are designed to minimize contact with police, undermine the idea that police produce public safety, build modes of collective care and social provision, and work toward the political, economic, and social transformations that abolition requires.”
It is important to note that while the abolitionist movement is national, its intellectual leaders, which include Rachel Herzing, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Angela Davis, and Amna Akbar, call for the battle to be fought in every city and town. Every local strategy should begin with Divest & Invest, which means continuously transferring tax dollars from police departments to social services agencies and programs − a tactic commonly referred to as “starving the beast.”
So, if reformers are coming after your police department, how do you know if they are looking for genuine reform in the way of greater accountability, enhanced training, and more transparency, or if they are local abolitionists?
Well, sometimes they come straight out and tell you they are abolitionists − which was the case with Uplift Watertown, one of the groups featured on a disgracefully one-sided Boston 25 News report and then again at the Watertown Town Council’s Public Safety Committee meeting on March 12.
Uplift Watertown used both opportunities to announce that the Watertown Police Department is grossly overfunded, relative to comparable Massachusetts communities, and that in order to bring its budget in line with those comparable communities, it should be cut by $2 million. At that Public Safety Committee meeting, Town Manager Michael Driscoll, who was not scheduled to speak, felt that it was his duty to set the record straight (my words, not his).
He respectfully suggested that Uplift Watertown’s comparable communities were not all that comparable to Watertown. Had they chosen the more urban communities, contiguous to Watertown − Cambridge, Belmont, Newton, and Waltham − they would have found that our police budget was perfectly in line.
And then Town Manager Driscoll explained that a $2 million cut in the police department budget would result in a loss of 20 police officers out of the current roster of 70. For Uplift Watertown, this would only be the beginning of their campaign to starve the beast. The abolitionist playbook calls for continuous police budget cuts until the department is eliminated and replaced mainly by mental health workers.
If it sounds like I’m calling Uplift Watertown a police abolitionist organization, it is only because they told us so.
Below are their slides, prepared in January (I obtained them from a Town employee who wishes to remain anonymous):
And here are their more recent slides, where all references to police abolition and abolition of the PIC (Prison Industrial Complex) have been removed.
The first set of slides told us honestly who they are. The second set of slides still preach the gospel of police abolition – “Defund, Dismantle, Delegitimize” − without using the A-word.
In what world, should a chief of police be required to accept reform demands from an organization, whose mission it is to put police departments out of existence?
When Black respondents told Gallup that they wanted to see police either as often or more often than they currently do, abolitionists said: It was only because they had “bought into the myth that police keep us safe.”
They might try telling that to our neighbors down the road in Waltham. On November 10, 2020, a man was attacked from behind by an assailant who struck him with a blunt object. The next day another man was attacked from behind in a parking garage. Over the next month, nine more men were attacked in a similar manner. Some required hospitalization.
Police stepped-up patrols.
At a news conference, Waltham Police Chief Keith MacPherson said: “The motive is somewhat in question but it appears to be a thrill of the assault, or someone who’s very violent and enjoys seeing someone hurt by this. There’s never been a robbery — it’s always been just an assault and the assailant takes- off.”
Mayor Jeannette McCarthy urged residents not to walk alone and stick to well-lit areas.
Residents began changing their routines, no longer strolling or dog walking alone, especially after dark.
“My God, we’re scared,” Amos Frederick, 37, told a reporter from Associated Press. “All of us stay indoors except during the day. If someone is just walking to their car, we watch out for them.”
On December 11, Waltham police arrested a 24-year-old man for the second attack, but they did not yet know if he was responsible for the other attacks or if there was another attacker still on the loose.
The mystery and the anxiety ended just over four months later on March 18, 2021 with the announcement that the man in custody since December 11 was the lone attacker.
“It took months of investigation to link him to all of the attacks,” said District Attorney Marian Ryan. “After an extensive investigation that included a review of cellphone data and surveillance video, the execution of search warrants and interviews with victims and witnesses, investigators determined [he] was responsible for the 10 other attacks.”
The understandably relieved Mayor McCarthy summed it up this way: “It was traumatic for the victims, but it was traumatic for the whole city.”
Here, I am going to make what I believe to be a common-sense assumption. There is no way on earth that the voters of Waltham − White, Black, Hispanic, Asian- American, Indigenous, or other − would entertain the notion of defunding their police department.
Nor would the voters of Watertown. Waltham’s trauma could just as easily have been Watertown’s.
So, aside from Uplift Watertown, Chief Lawn’s main opponents (I expect they would object to that characterization) are groups that are part of, or associated with, the Joint Police Reform Group, who state in writing that it has been statistically proven that the Watertown PD arrests and cites Black people at “extremely disproportionate rates.”
At the Public Safety Committee meeting on March 12, Chief Lawn showed slides refuting their assumptions. Members of the opposition groups, who introduced themselves as data experts (without actually calling themselves experts) told him that his presentation of the data was so faulty that it was essentially useless.
They told the chief that he was bad at data and they “generously” offered to “help” him out by delving into the data themselves to make sense of it.
Personally, I found the data debate mind-numbing.
There is however one piece of data that I do understand. At no time prior to the Public Safety Committee meeting, during the meeting, or after the meeting did any member of any of the opposition groups offer any examples of Black individuals, residents or non-residents, who were harassed by officers of the Watertown PD. As of today, the total number of incidents of harassment of Black individuals by Watertown cops is zero. That’s a number I can understand and it’s a number that means a lot to the greater Watertown community.
And, if that number were not zero − if there were actual victims of harassment, those individuals would soon find themselves surrounded by friends and supporters they never knew they had.
However, I was able to glean one piece of critical information from the Public Safety Committee meeting. The Watertown PD is underfunded and understaffed. The department is already undergoing comprehensive reform, coming from the state, and a landslide of unfunded mandates is coming their way.
Since the chief is so bad at data, perhaps the department should have a dedicated data specialist. Is the department dealing with an antiquated computer system, as are so many other city and state agencies? Is a major upgrade in order?
Better communication from the department sounds like a reasonable request. How about adding a part-time public affairs manager and a social media specialist to the staff? Enhanced training programs are an absolute necessity but can also be extremely time consuming. Should there be a full-time training officer and should the number of patrol officers be increased to compensate for time lost when officers are taken out of the field for training?
In order to make a good department the best it can possibly be, should we begin the discussion of upfunding the police?
Marion Road, Watertown