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
The Chief used a numerator with an incorrect denominator – I would say this is a pretty glaring error when it comes to data. “The total number of incidents of harassment of Black individuals by Watertown cops is zero” – where exactly are you getting this from?And why would anyone in a Town like this think coming forward with complaints to the police would actually get handled appropriately? There are many departments in this town that are underfunded – the police department is not one of them.
Right now, on top of policing, cops act as therapists, addiction specialists, traffic enforcement, domestic violence counselors, housing advocates, public park security, mental health crisis intervention and more. The most obvious and realistic thing that can be changed is the fact that police across the country take on all that, when there are people and departments out there that could handle those issues better. It’s time to reallocate funds to programs that will actually make a difference in the community.
OK, but how would your suggestion help against “porch pirates”, car breakins, and house breakins?
Reminder, only one comment per story unless you sign your full name.
Here, here! Thank you, Bruce. I totally agree with your sentiments.
I’m sure if anyone was harassed by the Watertown Police we would have heard about it. I’m tired of these complaints with no evidence to back them up. I saw the data too. 14 black residents were arrested out of approximately 360 arrests. Half of that 14 were for domestic violence. The others were serious crimes too. What are the police supposed to do? It’s their job to enforce the laws.
One would have to examine police complaint files to know of cases of harrassment.
Assuming such case were made in the first place.
I for one do know of cases of harrassment, but how would you anyone know since 99% of cases are obviously not made public. Depends on one’s definition of harrassment too.
Is it racial or just unjust treatment regardless of race? Is it a police officer throwing his weight around over nothing?
90% of people are not going to make a formal complaint anyway. They fear retaliation or do not think the police are going to do a proper investigation since the police would merely be investigating themselves.
If Joe or Mary Doe is harrassed, do you really think it’s going to be front page news?
I was a participant at the Public Safety Committee meeting who explicitly said that Chief Lawn’s use of statistics was so misleading as to be useless. I also said that many of us routinely use statistics in our work, which is true. Whenever I speak on political issues in Watertown, I speak as a private individual, but I do have expertise in this area and I would, in fact, be willing to help with the data analysis and interpretation. (For what it’s worth, I’m personally on the “reform” rather than the “abolish” side of the discussion. But I still want them to be able to speak.)
Regarding the data, there’s really not much question. As a WPD report itself found, Black people are disproportionately reflected in arrests and stops. Within that group, Black residents are also disproportionately reflected in arrests and stops. Chief Lawn’s presentation was meant to refute that, but it did not. He made a basic error that biased the numbers in a direction that looked better for the department, but was a gross misuse of the data. That’s why I want to hear from people in WPD who work with statistics, or have the city bring someone in for the purpose. Whatever skills and good qualities the Chief may possess, data analysis isn’t one of them. But I am certain there are people in the department with those skills.
Harassment is something entirely different. That’s change of subject. I am very glad that Black people are not harassed by the police (or at least it has not been reported). But what we have are statistics that point to a troubling tendency in the frequency of stops and arrests. I would like to know what’s behind the statistics. I would like to think that we all would. And that process should not include defensive claims and anecdotes.
To be clear, it is not at all surprising that the statistics show this pattern, so the response from Chief Lawn has been astonishing to me. It does not say that WPD officers are bad (or good). It shows indirect evidence of a bias. And by “bias” I mean “going in one direction rather than another more often than not.” A similar bias can be seen across the country, across many areas of public service, and across different sectors of the economy. (I, myself, don’t focus on the police. I focus on the schools, where I have to say, the staff respond with more discussion and much less drama.) The statistics may show evidence of conscious, targeted, bias, but I don’t assume that. The simpler assumption is that it is a sign of unconscious bias. Regardless of the reason, I’d like the city and the WPD to address it.
It’s time to cancel uplift Watertown
The numbers and calculation used by WPD are accurate per a recent independent 3rd party study conducted by Northeastern University.
Per the Northeastern study, “Jack McDevitt, director of the Institute for Race and Justice at Northeastern University, said comparing census data to general arrests is not always indicative of bias. He said comparing resident arrests to the residential population produces clearer numbers.” April 1, 2021
“Comparing resident arrests to the residential population produces clearer numbers.” So let’s do that. Please no more – “I use numbers at work” – a lot of people do.
Let’s look at the outcome when using the Institute for Race and Justice at Northeastern University methodology.
In 2018 of 372 arrests made, 14 were Black residents. Of the 14 arrests, WPD had zero discretion in 6 of those arrest (these were calls to 911 for incidents of domestic violence). I am assuming we all still believe you should get arrested for domestic violence.
So 8 arrests were made where WPD had some discretion – this represents 2.1% of the total (calculated using the Northeastern methodology). If you disagree, quote the source – it shouldn’t be yourself or a friend of yours who is re-quoting a FB post from Uplift Watertown. Real research.
Uplift Watertown claims “you are 5-6 more likely to be arrested in Watertown if you are Black” – it’s a lie per Northeastern University. The problem is simple – this doesn’t suit the narrative. You are looking for a problem that doesn’t exist in Watertown to fund your solution.
How about you pivot? Expend energy in ways to proactively support community initiatives.
Volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club or volunteer at the Watertown Food Pantry et al.?
Do something – anything – rather than just meeting, talking and complaining about what an awful place this is. Contribute. Surrounding yourself with like minded people telling yourselves you are right isn’t the answer.
Ask yourself what have you done (actually done) to improve Watertown? I believe for some in this debate it’s a very short or nonexistent list.
ML, from what you wrote it seems you are still making the same mistake that appeared in Chief Lawn’s presentation. Regardless of what category you choose — residents, discretionary, whatever — the category for the top of the dividing line (the numerator) has to be the same as the category for the bottom (the denominator).
So, for example, if you only include discretionary arrests of residents (which is fine with me), then you must divide the number of discretionary arrests of Black residents (numerator) by the total number of discretionary arrests of residents (denominator).
What you should NOT do is divide the number of discretionary arrests of Black residents by total arrests. As far as I can tell, that’s what you’re doing, and that’s apples and oranges. It’s also guaranteed to give you a number that’s lower than the true number. If that really was the Northeastern methodology, then I would like to see the paper where the methodology is presented.
Regarding the rest of your comments, I don’t want to spend time on them, but just so that you and other readers are aware, your assumptions about me are way off base.
It is so disheartening that people like the author of this letter persist in their unwillingness to see things from the perspective people who are victims of police brutality and harassment. Even within police departments, the racial and sexual harassment that some officers experience is frightening. And in our own town, the first Black female officer, Gail Miles, whose murder remains unsolved, was sexually and racially harassed by her colleagues. And we are also now aware that Kathleen Donohue, WPD’s first female detective, has also experienced sexual harassment by her colleagues. Yet the author cannot acknowledge even so much as acknowledge the pain of people who face harassment and discrimination- whether they pass through our town, live in our town, or work for our town. We have a lot of work to do, both internally and externally, and from what I’ve just read, Uplift Watertown has given us a place to start.
Thank you for this comment. I knew of these incidents, and no one else seems to be aware of them. It is important that we recognize that there is always room for improvement.
WOW lots of free time on someone’s hands! I absolutely love this when these groups appear out of thin air about what’s wrong with Watertown & how their single sided ways of how to fix it. did anyone ask you people [yes you people] for your input? I have to say being a life long “townie” I really don’t know what you are talking about, growing up & living here. I guess you didn’t hear the Chief talking about the good Police dept. does. So when you people come across my stolen ” I support the police sign” could you please return it no special group needed for this crime.
I am wondering if Black and Hispanic police are racist?
If so, are they racist against Whites or just Blacks and Hispanics?
The writer of this letter does a superb job in pushing back against the false narrative of the woke crowd who oppose his common sense discussion. Thank you MI. whoever you are. The goal of the lefties in Town is expanding Town govt. We already have a new equity, diversity and inclusion czar in the public schools and calls to create a new department of that in the school dept. We have calls to create departments of social work and mental health at town level, as well as calls to change the Town Charter to allow town council to hire staff to help them do their work. To quote a Founding Father “that government which governs best governs least”. As true today as it was at the time of the American Revolution.
Off the subject, but I have to note it.
“Below are the slides, prepared in January (I obtained them from a town employee who wishes to remain anonymous)”
This is problematic. How is it the town employee’s place to hand out the presentation or any other document? What else are town employee handing out? Can anyone go and ask? Does one have to have a special relationship? Slip a $20.00? Something for the town charter to address in terms of oversight, for sure. I can’t do that at my place of employment.
If something is submitted to the town, it is probably a matter of public record – in fact, anything submitted to the committees are added to the minutes, as are comments and emails. So no need to slip anyone anything, just ask for it.
Thank you, Bruce for such a clearly written letter. I think many of us fear the agenda of what some people in this town really want to do, which so to reform the whole town into their ideal utopia. And it does feel like all these groups are really the same people with the same agenda trying to make themselves look like a larger group of people than they really are to intimidate the rest of us.
That is the question. Was it indeed submitted to the committee for the record? And why the anonymous mention? State that it was obtained from Town Hall. Otherwise it gives pause.
Hello! You wrote “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.”
Not only is this not common sense, it is not accurate! I live in Waltham and am a voter! My ethnicity is not relevant! And I would certainly entertain the idea of defunding the police! There can be lively debate on what “defund” means and I would listen to the arguments of every voice on the spectrum from a simple “use your forfeiture fund to pay for your training ammo” to a radical “literally zero out their budget”! In a functioning democracy we should not only be allowed to have these debates but we should encourage them! Let them make their case to the citizens and then the citizens will decide! If “defund” is so completely unpopular, it will fail miserably!
The problem with both the police and people who write letters like this is that they do not even want an idea like “defund” to exist! They do not want debate or opposition, only uniform agreement with their position and beliefs! They fear ideas that are not their own! This is not democracy it is the very oppression you insist does not exist!
“How is it the town employee’s place…?” I would say, it wasn’t just their “place,” it was their duty. Town employees are public servants who perform duties vital to the town and its citizens’ well-being. To me, it follows logically that someone would feel compelled to help the town’s citizens by shedding light on who is trying to influence the town.
Good letter. Well reasoned. Not sure that the suggestions at the end, though well intended will address the concerns that many people have around police reform. There is genuine fear that the police have too much power in too many areas of citizen involvement where many people believe other types of services would be better than the FORCE of the police.
Interesting story out of Waltham about the attacks on people that did not turn out to be robberies.
December 11, Waltham police arrested a 24-year-old man and it’s been determined he is responsible for the attacks. Has any motive been determined? I wonder if he has any relations in law enforcement?
It wouldn’t be the first time fear has been used to influence people.
The person arrested was likely suffering from mental health issues and there was no explanation for his random attacks. Look up the newspaper article. He was a black youth that graduated from Waltham high, a former track star. No connection to the police has been mentioned, not sure what you’re implying.
There is a flipslide to that coin. If it was indeed public record then it is within the employee’s purview to do so. This, however, does not appear to be the act of a whistleblower. Whistleblowers give items to journalists in order to expose things kept undercover. This was given to someone who wrote a one-sided opinion piece on a presentation that would have been given a month ago but for time. The cloak & dagger tactics here are not amusing, and the ethics of anyone involved are potentially troublesome. It is not good to know that town employees have acted in this manner if a. This was not available for distribution and b. The employee gave the presentation to a friend or to a person with whom they are friendly. Regardless of one’s opinion on the presentation, this would be the definition of corruption.
I don’t understand why Rita is so upset that the true agenda of Uplift Watertown was exposed. Is it because even fewer people will support their ridiculous agenda?
Apparently “cancel” is the new dog whistle for any attempt to reform practices or introduce new values into the equation. The real word is “reform”.
This is not an expose Steven. Conspiracy theory spoiled. The presentations were set to be presented earlier in March. The letter is an opinion piece that unfortunately muddles several things together. Uplift Watertown is one many groups who want reform, and that reform ranges from a utopian view of policing to enacting the new laws on the books, and it includes a wide range of supporters, some of whom have done actual policing
I still want to know if anyone can go to Town Hall, and get their hands on any data that they want.