The Newton Police Reform Task Force presented its preliminary recommendations to the Newton City Council on Feb. 3 at the Public Safety Committee meeting, including implementing enhanced training and increasing diversity within the department to address the impacts of historic and current systemic racism in policing practices.
“We wanted to create a clear, actionable, and aspirational set of recommendations that addressed the historic and systemic racism which underlies all public institutions and policies,” Sonja Spears, chair of the task force, said. “And so because it exists in all public institutions and all systems in the United States, we in Newton are not exempt from them.”
Newton Mayor Ruthanne Fuller formed the task force in July in response to the murder of George Floyd and the following protests throughout the country.
The 12 members of the task force which Fuller appointed are conducting an assessment of the Newton Police Department (NPD) and will advise policies and procedures for the department. The task force will have a final report at the end of the month, according to Fuller, and making improvements will be an ongoing process, Spears said .
“Our recommendations were made with a mind towards thinking expansively, beyond current models, but not beyond the realm of feasibility. They represent shifts that could happen in the short term and others that will take longer,” Spears said. “They are created with the understanding that there is more work to be done developing the details to implement these aspirational goals.”
The NPD also conducted an internal review of the department and will present its recommendations.
Massachusetts Senator Cynthia Stone Creem shared the Massachusetts state bill that was signed by Governor Charlie Baker in December 2020. This bill restricts the use of force, banning the training and use of chokeholds. This also eliminated arrest or escape as reasons for deadly force.
The bill prevents the use of tear gas, chemical weapons, attack dogs, or rubber bullets unless de-escalation tactics have been attempted.
The Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, an independent committee made up by a civilian authority, was also created by the bill. This committee is authorized to investigate complaints into police misconduct.
The task force recommends improving relations between the community and the police through communication and accountability. To accomplish this, the task force recommends establishing a Newton Police Committee, similar to the Newton School Committee, to facilitate communication with the community and internal review of the NPD.
Spears said that the NPD facilities are in need of repair, which has a negative impact on the morale of the department. She said improvements to the facilities would help promote NPD personnel health and wellness.
To improve cultural competency, the task force recommends enhancing training with vulnerable populations, including the LGBTQ+ community, the elderly, and non-English speakers.
Spears said that the task force heard from the community and the department concerns about increasing the expertise of first responders to mental health crises. It recommended evidence-informed de-escalation training and use of force training.
The task force also recommends giving serious consideration to leaving the civil service system to make changes to the recruiting and hiring process to ensure racial, ethnic, and gender diversity within NPD personnel.
Spears said that there is currently only one Black police officer in the Newton Police Force, which Spears said the task force thinks is unacceptable.
The task force advised implementing a culture-change initiative, improving procedural justice and problem-oriented policing, continuing to improve bias-free policing, and supporting mutual accountability.
It advised continuing the transition from a “warrior mindset” to a “guardian mindset” in operations and training. Spears said the guardian role involves upholding the rights of others and treating each other with respect and dignity.
Finally, it recommended including a different approach to crisis situations and non-police responses to various violations.
It recommended implementing a regional network of mobile clinical staff and medical first responders to de-escalate and transport people who are intoxicated, mentally ill, or in need of social services. It also recommended creating a voluntary registry of vulnerable people in order to support police and community response teams.
Featured Image by Keara Hanlon / for The Heights