26 thoughts on “OP-ED: The Police Chief and The Missing Data

  1. What is so wrong with citizens in town questioning the arrest records of our police department with regards to black arrests? In my opinion, nothing is wrong about this but what I find odd is the resistance by the WPD and some in town closely associated with the police.

    Citizens in town should be able to question actions and decisions made by town departments. After all, isn’t your wife questioning and opposing the decision of the town to allow turf fields at BBN? Not to say I don’t agree with her. She has that right to question town officials just like groups in town concerned about racism have the right to question town departments.

    • Here, here! The idea that only certain people get to question or that only people get question is the very definition of elitism. The town works for us. Question it all because that is to think critically. Accepting items at face value without data is complacent. And complacency can be a lot worse than apathy because one has already decided to be lazy. Time to step up the game because this resting on laurels is how democracies and communities die. Respect must be earned each and every day, otherwise it is valueless.

  2. Dear resident,
    Why are we only thinking racisms exists in our police department as has been suggested by these white people? Why are you not questioning our schools, fire and DPW for data ? Racism exists everywhere.
    Why just the police? Their job is to handle situations when people call them for help. They respond to help citizens and situations not matter their color or ethnicity. Why would that be your only focus ?
    Maybe that’s racism at its core. You want to paint one profession with a broad brush without ONE example. Brave Bruce for calling out this nonsense.

    • I am a white woman of privilege who grew up in Cambridge, and have lived in Watertown and am proud to call it my home for the last twelve years and hopefully forever ( i am 57!). In the last few years of Trump and George Floyd I have begun to do important work and see in these posts and especially in what Mr. Colton wrote in his op-Ed a perfect example of the “white fragility” that Robin D’Angelo writes about in her now famous book of the same name. We, as white people, must stop defending ourselves against the indefensible and allow ourselves to sit with the uncomfortability of knowing that we live in a racist society and system from which we benefit. Of course, Watertown is a racist town – note I am not calling any one person a racist- many many statistics prove this to be the case. The question, however, is not whether we can admit it or not, we know better, the important question is what us each of us. As Individuals who care about our community, going to do to make our town the welcoming place we either think or want it to be.

      • But if the police are called to a domestic violence situation, they MUST arrest the perpetrator of the assault. I looked at the data and heard Chief Lawn’s breakdown of the 14 arrests of black residents. 8 of those arrests were for domestic violence I believe. The police still have to do their jobs here. I feel like they’re between a rock and a hard place with this scrutiny. Maybe we should focus on why we had so many black residents involved in domestic violence situations. Someone called for the police to respond. They had no choice. Let’s focus on the systemic racism that occurs before the police are left to deal with the aftermath.

  3. Your claim of “non-existent racist behavior by the Watertown Police Department” is absurd on so many levels. I am so tired of reading claims that there are no issues with the Watertown Police Department. Just because you haven’t heard about it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. I know several people of color who live here in Watertown who have experienced racist behavior on the part of the Watertown Police Department. And yes, they do have a “fear of retribution” or believe “that nothing would be done about their complaint”. I have personally witnessed racist behavior by the Watertown Police Department and I know of others who have witnessed racist behavior by members of the Watertown Police Department as well and in fact , I know of one resident who witnessed a racist incident by a member of the department and reported it, and nothing was done to address the behavior. The Police Chief attending meetings that address the problem of racist behavior by the Watertown Police Department and answering questions can only serve to improve the department. And although I agree with the sentiment of the previous commenter, I do hope they are questioning more than “the arrest records of our police department with regards to black arrests”; not all incidents of racist behavior by the police department end in arrests, with good reason. I can’t fathom why anyone would prefer that we just ignore the issue all together. Every incidence of racist behavior on behalf of the Watertown Police Department should be addressed. Sadly, Watertown has a reputation of being a racist city amongst many people of color, and people who deny racist behavior by the police and that racism exists in Watertown only serve to perpetuate that reputation.

    • Watertown has a reputation of being a racist city? What a blanket statement. Watertown is, and has always been, a very diverse community. It’s sad that the ones with the loudest voices have only unjustifiable accusations to make.

    • Sorry, I don’t believe your stories, let’s see the proof. Otherwise it’s just rumors and innuendo.

  4. There’s a lot to unpack, here. I won’t get to it all, but will try to address at least some of the points. First, while it is certainly understandable to think that the JPRG speaks with one voice, it really doesn’t. There are different groups involved, and each one brings its own proposals and concerns.

    I have personally spoken at the meetings Mr. Coltin refers to, and suspect that he is referring to some of my comments. To be clear, I am not part of the JPRG, but I am part of Watertown Community for Black Lives (WCBL), which is represented on the JPRG. I will touch on WCBL’s activities, and some of my comments specifically.

    Responding to @Jack, I’d like to be very clear that WCBL does not limit its attention to the WPD. In fact, I focus on the schools, and have had some very sharp exchanges with school administration. We don’t have anyone focusing on the fire department or DPW, but we are not a large group. We haven’t done a public records request to the schools because, so far, the data that the district has reported to the state covers what we need.

    In the meetings that Mr. Coltin refer to, I have made no secret of my frustration with Chief Lawn. That frustration did not come from nowhere, but I will not rehearse the reasons for it here. However, I can’t emphasize enough that my frustration does not extend to any other person on the force. In my personal encounters with WPD officers I have found only professional behavior.

    About the data: What JPRG and WCBL requested is a matter of public record. It could simply be put on the WPD or town website. But it wasn’t, and as WCBL’s mission is to address systemic racism in our community and we want to take an evidence-based approach, we made a public records request. The data showed, as WPD acknowledged in its own reports, that non-white people are over-represented in WPD stops and arrests.

    That’s it. That’s the data. By itself, it does not say any more than that. We were hoping for some serious examination from WPD, but that was vigorously rejected by Chief Lawn. Given that reality, we use the evidence available to us. In light of widely-studied social trends across the US, the findings are very consistent with what is called “systemic racism”. The word “systemic” means that it isn’t limited to any one person, or department, or city. It also means that it can’t be reduced to any one incident. You don’t see it operate at the level of individual interactions — you see it when you look at the big picture. I personally think this is the most likely explanation for the patterns seen in the data.

    Addressing systemic racism is not a matter of individual blame. That is why, for me, Chief Lawn’s defensive reaction to criticism is surprising and frustrating. But the fact that a problem is systemic, and not individual, doesn’t mean that individuals can’t act. In fact, to deal with systemic issues, we all have to act. And we should, because systemic racism is tied to unequal outcomes in wealth, health, education, incarceration, and so on across the board. People across the country are stepping up to try to make a difference. I would like to see Watertown do that as well. In fact, I would like us to be a leader. But at the very least I would like us to look at our city institutions and seek to address it.

    • If I understand your statements correctly, in the public arrest records sample you see a disproportion of non-white arrests in relation to the demographic distribution in the community. In short, any data sample collected at any time should mirror the racial proportion distribution. Your claim that the sample signifies racial disparity in arrests implies that race is a factor in how the WPD make arrests. You now want a further deep dive into the Police Department in search of evidence to support your theory. The WPD presented the public data of each and every non-white arrest made in the sample. Each of those arrests were individually reviewed at the first public meeting. None were unjustified or unlawful or there would have been formal complaints being addressed in the court system. I can only then assume that you are accusing the Police Department of overlooking similar crimes being committed by white people and are looking for some evidence to support it. The claim of some statistical significance of the data sample is your opinion. As you stated, the data by itself does not say any more than that. Now you want to go fishing beyond where the data you have can take you and want the Police Department to supply the manpower to conduct your research on the taxpayers dollars. Based on what? Not a single formal complaint, unnamed people claiming to have seen undocumented events taken place who knows when or where, hearsay of bad behaviors from unknown people and unidentified sources. Where are the facts? Where is the transparency there? Your group has been given more time in Watertown public meetings than I have ever seen. They have been given hours of meeting time and full opportunity to make formal presentations at multiple meetings. You and your group continue to negatively single out an extremely well run and widely accredited Police Department for accusations of law enforcement racism without any evidence or merit.

    • This argument is literally insane. Systemic racism is defined as racism no one can find any evidence of.

      For those reading, systemic racism is not institutionalized racism or “widespread” racism or anything like that. That’s not what the term means. Systemic racism is a kind of circular logic. If there are any disparities in outcome between racial groups, the cause is systemic racism, because systemic racism is disparity between racial groups. It’s a sort of “leftover” diagnosis. You don’t need to prove racism. You just need to assert it.

      Then you simply demand “accountability,” which means,”Do what I say regardless of what voters want.”

      There are no two demographic groups anywhere on earth at any point in history that have identical outcomes. Not even among black groups in Africa. That would be an extraordinary finding. Not the norm.

      Black people commit a disproportionate number of crimes. Period. So they are going to be arrested out of proportion to their population figure. That’s not racist. It’s not simply a result of racist arrests. If you think it is, I challenge anyone of any race to spend a weekend night walking around Wellesley or even Roslindale, then compare it to a hot summer night in Roxbury and tell me how you fare.

      In Watertown’s case, we also have a number of retail businesses that attract customers from a much wider geographic area. The arrest demographics more closely reflect that

      As is typical, you use Trojan horse language and pretend to “just” be asking questions. You aren’t. You’ve already received all possible answers to those questions. You have all the data. You’re actually trying to destroy the institution of policing.

      You’re not going to be permitted to take over the town as you desire to do using an endless witch hunt as cover. Sorry. We’re on to you now.

      • Your comments here demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of systemic racism. When you say “Black people commit a disproportionate number of crimes. Period.” as an argument that systemic racism doesn’t exist, you make clear that you don’t know or understand history or what crime is.

        You seem to assume that what counts here and now as a crime is an objective, indisputable, race-neutral fact, instead of the law being defined by the outlooks and biases of every and place and time.

        Some crimes (like murder) actually hurt people, and pretty much everyone would agree that they should be illegal. But plenty of things that hurt a lot of people but can be done while wearing a suit and tie are not illegal, so we don’t call the people who cause that kind of harm criminals. And a lot of things that are illegal are not equally enforced. Those decisions about what counts as a crime and which laws should be enforced and against whom, are not made in a historical or ideological vacuum.

        That’s why we still have so many people locked up in the US for possessing or selling small amounts of marijuana (disproportionately Black and brown people, who use illegal drugs at similar rates to white people), while people who served time for selling it in the past are often still denied legal licenses for selling it now. It’s why the sentences for cocaine were so much more lenient than the sentences for crack. It’s why we don’t fund the IRS enough to enforce laws against the wealthy hiding earnings and profits from taxation, but we direct them to use their limited resources to make sure no one cheats on Earned Income Tax Credits. It’s why seasonal farm workers who used to be allowed to cross peacefully into and out of our country to harvest crops are now required to go through an onerous process to change their legal status in order to fill similar essential roles in our economy, and we call them criminals if they fail to jump through those arbitrary hoops. It’s why Black and brown children are suspended and expelled from school – and Black and brown drivers are stopped – at disproportionate rates, for the same behaviors that more often earn white people at most a slap on the wrist and not a trip to jail (or worse). It’s why there is even such a crime as “loitering” or “vagrancy” and why those laws were put on the books in the years shortly after enslaved Black people in the South were emancipated from slavery with this crucial loophole: “except as a punishment for crime.”

        What we call a crime, and what “crimes” we enforce, are profoundly shaped by prevailing attitudes about who deserves to be policed, and who should be allowed to get away with harming others without being punished. How we treat people who have been stopped, arrested, accused, and convicted of what is currently counted as crime – and the obstacles we continue to put up to their thriving even after they have “paid their dues” – has a lot to do with why it might be more pleasant to walk of an evening in Wellesley than in Roxbury.

        But if we’re going to talk about which neighborhoods feel safe, I’ve also heard first-hand accounts of how it’s not always so pleasant to walk – or drive – around in Watertown if you’re not white. Racist harassment is only invisible or nonexistent if you don’t experience it yourself AND if you don’t believe people when they tell you they have experienced it. But that’s getting off-topic. That isn’t necessarily systemic racism, that’s just plain old (internal or interpersonal) racism. Unfortunately, we have plenty of that here, too.

  5. @Jack McHugh, I wasn’t trying to hide or deflect. I was just trying to own what I myself am responsible for doing and saying, not trying to speak for someone else. I have actually said some pretty critical things, so I was trying to do the opposite of what you suggest — not trying to separate myself from what the JPRG says and does, but to make sure you don’t take my statements as JPRG statements. They were just my own.

    For what it’s worth, I thought JPRG has been pretty clear in their presentations about what groups are represented and which group is putting forth which policy proposals. I personally want all of those proposals to get a hearing. My understanding of the purpose of the JPRG is to do just that– to make sure all the proposals are put on the table together, instead of one by one, so it makes sense to join together as the JPRG even if each member group is fielding its own set of proposals.

    I really don’t want to get into the “what have you done lately” debate. I am trying to make a difference, I don’t know if I do. I don’t want to make any claims.

    I’m not going to comment on Chief Lawn’s presentations, which I was not happy with. But, again, I want to emphasize that I have no complaints about WPD in general. I don’t scoff at what they do. I’ve seen, not only the police, but also the school and library staff, go above and beyond. Other departments might as well, but those are the ones I’ve observed.

    I’ll end by saying that WCBL really isn’t hidden. You can find us on Facebook and the web: go to https://wcbl.org. (Although that page is not 100% up to date — we’re not doing potluck dinners during COVID-19.)

  6. You’re really missing the point, Bruce. Horrific letter. Remember that Watertown is actively facing a lawsuit for discrimination against a woman and the department has been sued and lost a discrimination claims in the past. The town’s residents pay for these lawsuits. The Chief and the department are public servants. We deserve to know what’s going on and must make sure this town is equitable and safe for all. Let’s have a dialogue and not cover things up and yell at residents when they ask questions.

  7. If I had not attended all of the public meetings described above as “kangaroo court,” I might read this account and come away thinking Chief Lawn was indeed being “held captive” and “forced” “on trial” for hours, trying to defend himself against spurious charges brought by ignorant whiners who only pretend to have human feeling for anyone in uniform.

    What I saw was very different. In response to reasonable questions, in particular about a concerning pattern of stops and arrests, I’ve watched a months-long refusal by the chief – and by the chair of the Committee on Public Safety and the Town Manager to whom the chief reports – to address these questions directly. So far, they have successfully deflected a real conversation about why Black people have been stopped and arrested at much higher rates than white people in Watertown, out of proportion to their numbers in our population, and how that might be changed.

    I do share the OP’s dismay about how many hours we’ve spent on this, since we still have not actually heard any explanations from the chief for the concerning data, nor any suggestions from him for how policing could be more fair in the future.

    When members of the community make their own suggestions, no matter how thoughtful, creative, or respectfully framed, I get the strong impression that Chief Lawn is not interested in hearing them, much less in taking them seriously. He has suggested that his #1 job is to defend his department and every penny of its budget against these unreasonable critics. I think he would better serve his department as well as the safety of the public by engaging with the substance of the concerns.

    I agree with the OP that the next Town Manager must require transparency and accountability from the chief and his department. I would like to see the elected Town Council take a stronger role in that as well.

    But the truth is not the simplistic story we are told here, which misrepresents and then dismisses the concerns of a particular coalition of community members and pits that “fiction” against the “reality” of the outgoing Town Manager.

  8. I have attended a few of the meetings, and what I walk with are two things. The Police Department is woefully understaffed and underfunded in one area. And this is in technology. The idea that records are still on paper is mind boggling. The department needs a civic technologist, not a web designer, to come in to transform the records, centralized them so that they are self-serve, and gate when appropriate per legal regulations. What would be really great is if the department had an actual criminologist on staff who can analyze the data and report insights. This could benefit the department in several ways – track excellent practice and poor practice, provide data to invalidate actuations, provide data to correct behavior, improve systems and remove liabilities, etc. I know there is a big price tag, but surely the are federal and municipal grants for city modernization. Luckily, we have a city population that has many a person who has written a grant. The other thing I get from these meetings is the noise from the circus that happens outside of these meetings. There are vested interests in keeping Watertown white or comfortably white, and they will use whatever tool they can to further their interest, ie the police department, the schools, elections, etc. These are the same people who will complain about non-white kids running around in the streets, but will call police officers Nazis for chasing down adults for setting off illegally obtained fireworks. Forget that this puts properties at risk. These people will verbally attack a non-white person or group for voicing opinions, but will call the white guy who barricades himself in his home after he has shot his family such a nice guy. Forget that this puts police officers at the door at risk. They will beg for voter id, but ignore the ex-presidents 2018 report that found very little fraud, but found that white, older people with second homes do vote in the wrong town/state. Forget the risk to democracy. They will threaten the lives of people who kneel at the flag in protest, but be radio silent when the building that houses our legislative body is attacked. Forget the American lives in that building. These are examples of conversations that I have heard in this town. People hear your racist thoughts loud and clear, couched and uncouched. As a lifer, I can tell you racist statements were far fewer 25 years ago, but now I am hearing it on a weekly based. All I have to do is sit in a meeting, wait in a line or eat at a restaurant, and listen. Be better for everyone’s sake! We have a lot of work to do, and we need everyone to contribute the best of themselves.

    • Where is your proof about these vested interests? Watertown has always been welcoming to different ethnic groups, so if you have some proof of your claims, you should post them here.

      Indeed, there are people with vested interests in finding offense where it doesn’t exist. In harassing the police department and having the temerity to think that they should have oversight of the Watertown Police Department and be the only arbiters of what is offensive in this town.

      Eric claims that these groups are all separate, but from the outside it looks like they’re all the same people calling themselves different groups to appear to be a larger group in town than they actually are. They talk about defunding and claim injustice as well as demanding that they’re the only ones who understand data and can parse it all out for the rest of us – with a very conscious bias against the police.

      I think the chief has bent over far too much for a small group of people looking to find fault and make an impact so they can pat themselves on the back for “making a difference” and being righteous as they pander to each other about making changes for events that happened in other parts of the country. Those events have been tragic, but they didn’t happen in Watertown. They didn’t even happen in the state. I don’t want to hear from these people if they also don’t address the crime in cities like Chicago where people are dying every weekend, and not because they’re a different race from one another. They pick which things to be offended while ignoring issues that don’t suit their argument.

      I honestly think you’re looking to be offended and finding things that you want to find. I haven’t heard of anything that is racist the same local places in town when I’ve been dining and shopping . If you have examples, list them in detail. Otherwise, it’s just hearsay to further your own agenda. One that most people in this town do not agree with.

      • These conversations are proof right here. Claiming that this or that doesn’t happen in Watertown is the very attempt by vested interests to keep Watertown a certain way. I can walk into the bank, a restaurant, the town hall or any place, and somebody will be saying something about a person, group or entity that is clearly racist. You give them a look to indicate that people can hear them and that they are not in a private place, and the speaker will stop talking or the speaker will speak louder. People either have no shame or they have multiplied: I don’t know which. What do I know is that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, then it uses situations to cover for its racist beliefs. I am more offended by the dishonesty.
        It shows the level of duplicity on the part of some in town. So instead of moving forward and getting what is needed, we have to be mired in these distractions. The needs to a lot of modernization because as of now it is now equipped to deal with its burgeoning future. Don’t ruin the future because you can’t let go of the past.