The Boston police have been urging calm and peace in the days leading up to the expected announcement of the grand jury decision in the Mike Brown police shooting case in Ferguson, Missouri. The police have been sending out mass emails and even making robocalls asking people not to riot when the decision is announced.
The anticipated protests that seem likely to follow the grand jury decision are a key opportunity for the Boston Police Department to live up to Commissioner William Evans' vision. Evans recently claimed in an interview with WBUR that the Boston police have changed their violent crowd control tactics in the decade since a Boston police officer killed Victoria Snelgrove, a bystander at the riotous celebration that followed the Red Sox eliminating the Yankees and making it into the World Series in 2004.
Evans Told WBUR that the Boston police no longer wear riot gear at crowd events and that instead of violently dispersing crowds, they nicely ask protesters to move along and offer them high fives. Despite Evans' claims that these changes to the department's culture have already taken place, they have yet to be seen in action. It's unsurprising that they haven't when you consider that Officer Rochefort Milien, who killed Snelgrove, faced no significant repercussions for his actions, still works for the department, and took home $142,711.36 in taxpayer money last year.
These protests will also be a test for Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has also called for peace in the aftermath of the grand jury announcement. Walsh expressed a troubling view on the First Amendment earlier this year to The Boston Herald. After an inflammatory incident that occurred shortly before the Boston Marathon, Walsh called on the Boston police to arrest anyone wearing a backpack and shouting "Boston Strong" as soon as possible, not even allowing them to travel two blocks in the city.
The Boston police are the only group likely to show up to the protests who have specifically trained to perpetrate organized violence against crowds. The last major street protest movement, Occupy Boston, was “successfully” policed according to Evans, despite Boston police officers who choked multiple people and threw others to the ground on camera.
If the Boston police want to send emails and make robocalls to try to head off violence in the streets, they should be to their own officers.
You've probably heard by now about the indiscriminate use of tear gas by police in Ferguson, Missouri by now. Although the police in Ferguson have been justifying their violent crackdown as necessary to prevent rioting and looting, it's clear to anyone who's been paying attention that the police are targeting the peaceful protesters who are angry about the police shooting of Michael Brown and the journalists who have shown up to report on them.
In light of the events in Ferguson, I wanted to point everyone to a recent story we did about how the police in West Springfield, Massachusetts have two grenade launchers which they say are for firing tear gas canisters.
The grenade launchers were obtained in 1996 through the federal government's 1033 program, which transfers excess military property to police departments throughout the country free of charge, the same program which is likely responsible for much of the military-style weaponry you've seen police in Ferguson using on TV.
West Springfield Police Chief Ronald P. Campurciani has characterized the grenade launchers as antiquated, obsolete, inaccurate, and dangerous (the tear gas canisters used with them can start fires), and has said they have never been used for law enforcement purposes in the past and are unlikely to ever be used in the future.
While Chief Campurciani has said the grenade launchers will probably never be used, it would be better if we didn't have to take his word for it. He might change his mind if West Springfield becomes the site of a huge demonstration against police violence. The next police chief might also decide to put the grenade launchers to use. It would be better if the police simply did not have access to these weapons in the first place.
Even if the weapons were not considered antiquated by the police, they still wouldn't serve any legitimate purpose. Tear gas is an inherently indiscriminate weapon and has a strong likelihood of affecting bystanders even when it's being used in response to actual violence. (The same is true of many other “crowd control” weapons police use including the LRAD, a sound weapon that can cause permanent hearing loss to people within its vicinity. The Boston police have one of these.)
Although tear gas is legal for use by police, it's a barbaric enough weapon that it's actually banned for use in war by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993 which the US is a party to, the same treaty that Obama, after drawing his “bright red line,” wanted to bomb Syria for violating.
The events in Ferguson have shown that when we allow police to stockpile military gear, “crowd control” weapons, and surveillance equipment, we're setting ourselves up for trouble. Hopefully the protests and violent police responses playing out in Ferguson will wake people up to the fact that it's time to demilitarize the police.
Governor Deval Patrick has suspended Massachusetts' participation in the 1033 program before and he could do it again. That would at least be a start.
Reporter Tim Pool with VICE had his press marker ripped off his chest by a police officer in Ferguson this morning as the police continue to ratchet up their level of violence. Other reporters were allegedly arrested and subjected to chemical attacks again today. When the police force the media out of an area they lose all credibility when they tell their side of whatever happened.
What lessons does Ferguson have for Massachusetts?
Our police are being given the same weapons and training as the officers in Ferguson. Our police are not held accountable by the justice system here too (for instance every officer involved in Alyssa Brame’s death in custody will keep their job and the demotions given were temporary instead of the jail time anyone without a badge would have received). Our police have threatened to arrest Andrew and I repeatedly when we try to film events.
What if instead of all the military gear Ferguson had put in dash and badge cameras?
The Ferguson police could prove the struggle they claim happened (if it did) by simply presenting the video. If they had a video detailing Mike Brown attacking their officer and trying to grab his gun in the car the police would have the moral high ground here… Cameras are a good cop’s best friend. No more “he said… um he can’t say… because that first guy shot him to death.” If the footage shows the witness version of events then the police could arrest the officer. Transparency here instead of curfews and violence would diffuse the situation.
In Massachusetts we need a way to hold police accountable for their actions. At present the police are investigated by other police either from their department or from the state police and then it’s up to the district attorney, who relies on the credibility of the police department to do their job, to decide if the police officer will be prosecuted. Unsurprisingly the police are rarely prosecuted. The badge has become a license to kill and there is no relief in the justice system. If we do not change this, people will continue to be pushed to a breaking point.
Alyssa Brame was unconscious so she could have been anyone. Brame died in police custody on film yet no one charged and no one fired. Military veteran Denis Reynoso was shot dead in front of his son in his home. Police entered for unknown reasons and ignored that they were told before they entered that Reynoso was in need of medical help. Officers had no warrant, and Reynoso was unarmed – the police claim he tried to grab an officer’s gun. No one charged and no one fired. In both cases it is clear no real investigation was conducted.
If we want to avoid having a Ferguson in Massachusetts, it’s time to demilitarize the police, hold them accountable, and teach them to respect citizens' and journalists' rights to record.