Examining an opaque policing framework


March 15, 2021

This is part one of a two part series on the unclear future of policing in Brookline. Part two is now available here.
 Listen to this story in audio format below.

On June 5, 2020, face masks trapping in the hot summer air, hundreds of Brookline residents took to the streets in the name of Black lives. Signs read “Enough is enough” and “End white silence.” Walking towards Town Hall, all the tension of the month’s national protests could be felt in the air. Upon arrival, that tension closed in.
Metal barricades and police officers from Brookline and Boston blocked the path. As they turned towards the library parking lot, protesters were met by more officers. It was unclear what department they belonged to – these officers were unnamed, untagged and wearing riot gear.
“It was a peaceful march, and what happened?” local activist Kimberley Richardson said. “Police were in tactical gear. Like, what the f—? Just in this peaceful town.”
Brookline police in regular uniform stepped in front of the officers in riot gear, and white protesters stepped in front of the Black speakers as a “shield.” Soon, police and protesters were able to de-escalate the situation and come to a dialogue. But Jonathan Mande, who spoke at the event, recalled the numerous recent protests across the country that had not ended so peacefully.

MIRA DONAHUE/SAGAMORE STAFF Protesters confront police in riot gear at a Black Lives Matter protest on June 5th, outside of the library. A Brookline Police Officer stepped ahead of those in riot gear, and white protesters formed a line of defense, and the situation remained peaceful.

“For me it was just like, clutch your pearls, hold on tight, be present and be here, but also, if you can help calm tensions, do that. And that’s what I did,” Mande said. “But I was ready. I already in my head planned out my escape route, if things went down.”
Select Board member Raul Fernandez wrote in a statement later that week that the confrontation was “emblematic of our relationship with policing, and policing’s relationship with us.”
But accompanying the outrage was hope and connection, as the school and town communities held vigils, discussions and more signs. For Fernandez, the omnipresent response served as a call to action, not just societally, but legislatively.
“It really was this righteous mutli-racial, multi-generational uprising in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others,” Fernandez said. “The fact that so many of us were compelled in the midst of a pandemic, having not left the house for weeks, to take to the streets and just say, enough is enough.”
At a Select Board meeting on June 11, Fernandez proposed the establishment of a Task Force to Reimagine Policing to find a new way forward. It was debated until July 21. Having reached a compromise, the Select Board voted unanimously to establish two distinct groups: Fernandez’s Task Force and a Committee on Policing Reform.
Over the next seven months, the two groups did research, held interviews and drafted recommendations. The final drafts of those recommendations (Reimagining Task Force and Reform Committee) were presented to the Select Board on March 2, with a public hearing to come on March 16 and the final vote on March 30. The reports highlight a striking trend: a lack of transparency and public input that the Task Force determined has led to disparate perceptions across racial and socioeconomic lines.

School Resource Officers

The high school has a School Resource Officer (SRO), currently Kaitlin Conneely, a liaison from the Brookline Police Department (BPD) intended to build positive relationships with students and offer support. The position started in 2018 and, according to METCO Coordinator Malcolm Cawthorne, that fact alone is telling about the necessity of the position.
“When {the position} started, Brookline High was 175 years old,” Cawthorne said. “What happened in the 21st century that made us feel like after all this time we needed a police officer in the building with an office?”
Cawthorne joined the Task Force SRO subcommittee to learn more about it. But as their research progressed, the subcommittee realized not much else was known by anyone.
“This position was established very nearly under cover of night,” the subcommittee’s final report stated. From what they determined, the state law that mandated SROs was put into effect in 2014 as a measure against school shootings, but only after a 2018 update including a model Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was put into place did the town comply and start the program.
Cawthorne said that the idea of SROs as a safety measure is a flawed one; data shows SROs have rarely been effective in preventing school shootings. But the main concern of the subcommittee, he said, was the lack of communication at the time of its signing.
“Our interim superintendent last year, Ben Lummis, was the one who actually signed the Memorandum of Understanding. The police chief who’s no longer the chief, who had barely been chief, signed it. And then nobody else in Brookline seemed to know about it,” Cawthorne said. “The School Committee didn’t see it. The Select Board didn’t know about it, and they’re supposed to be commissioners of the police. It just felt so bizarre to me, not only that we would have a School Resource Officer, but that we didn’t have to go through any process, any public process {to get one}.”
Since then, the report suggests, transparency has only marginally improved. As part of a survey of Brookline residents administered by Tufts University and Task Force member Eitan Hersh, residents who identified themselves as parents in the school district were asked if police were stationed in the schools. Only 14 percent correctly said yes; 47 percent said no and 39 percent were not sure.
“You can’t tell me it’s community driven if nobody knows what’s going on,” Cawthorne said. “We don’t even know who supervises and evaluates the School Resource Officers.”
SROs are in the Community Service division of the BPD. Casey Hatchett, the sergeant of this division, said overall awareness of the program should be of less importance than the interpersonal connections that Conneely has with students that do know about her.
“It’s important to indicate that there’s no mandatory meeting with Kaitlin,” Hatchett said. “Students aren’t told they need to go and see her, but her office is full all day with students.”
Conneely could not be reached for comment. Cawthorne said that while she excelled at the intangible parts of her job, the intangibility itself concerned him.
“They keep talking about building relationships with kids, and I actually think Kaitlin is fairly good at that. But there’s also no data,” Cawthorne said.
Kimberley Richardson has children at the high school and served on the Task Force’s SRO subcommittee. She said that the absence of any data collection was one of the biggest red flags of the program.
“How’s it that you’re a police officer, you’re a public servant, you’re serving the public and you’re not recording or keeping an account of the people that you’re making contact with,” Richardson said. “You’re at the school and you’re talking with my kids, but you don’t have a record of talking with my kids, that doesn’t make sense to me.”
With origins seemingly ambiguous, few parents knowing about the program and no-one tracking the day-to-day operations, the subcommittee decided that the unknowns of the program were hindering its success.
Strategies For Youth (SFY), a non-profit focused on improving the way police interact with youth, has done extensive work with SRO programs across the country. According to founder and executive director Lisa Thurau, a lack of open communication between officers, administrators, students and parents often gets in the way of what may be an earnest attempt to build relationships and divert students away from the criminal justice system.
“We don’t see articulated visions of this in many schools,” Thurau said. “When you don’t have folks listening to the parents, when you don’t have transparency, you’re going to get a lot of anxiety. And a lot of this comes with schools failing to answer families’ questions about what could happen to their kids and not providing that kind of transparency.”
SFY created a Parent’s Checklist for SRO’s in Your Children’s Schools, which Thurau said parents should use to actively evaluate the SRO program the high school has in place. If it cannot meet the criteria, such as a publicly-developed Memorandum of Understanding and highly visible guidelines for how the officers interact with teachers, administrators and staff, the program should be eliminated or renovated to meet them.
Part of why transparency and open communication is so important, Thurau said, is that without it, racial disparities may arise without being uncovered and addressed. In a recent report, SFY found several ways in which Black and brown students can be harmed more than others by the presence of SROs.
Conneely has made zero arrests in the high school. However, the report suggests that her presence could have a negative impact on mental health, given the increased attention and outrage towards police brutality. Students of color might feel that negative impact disporportionately – not only because of a higher rate of distrust towards police given the ongoing history of police brutality in the nation, but also because of their proximity to her office in daily life.
The SRO office is in the front wing on the first floor, directly across from the METCO room, and within a few hundred feet are the African-American Latino Scholars Program (AALSP) room and the Steps to Success (STS) room. With the three community spaces designated specifically for students of color and low-income students in such close proximity, Cawthorne and others, such as parent Donelle O’Neal Sr., have raised concerns about the population of students Conneely comes into contact with on an everyday basis.

The proximity of the SRO office at the high school to community spaces for students of color and low-income students.
METCO: Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity
AALSP: African-American Latino Scholars Program

“When I found out that the office was near my son all the time, when he walks into that building, it bothered me,” O’Neal said. “That’s what really kind of hit me in the gut. Like, are you serious?”
According to Hatchett, when the office was chosen, Conneely raised the concern with the interim METCO Coordinator at that time, who did not voice any objection. The Task Force report said “that productive conversation was never directed toward STS or AALSP.”
Because she did not hear any objections at the time, Conneely’s office did not move. However, Hatchett said, student input could still change that at any point.
“If they do have an issue with the location, then we move her. It’s a no-brainer,” Hatchett said. “If they don’t, I would hate to see other people telling these students how they should feel about it. I think that there’s some danger to that. But she’s happy to move if that’s the consensus. Or even other than the consensus, if there’s several students that feel that way.”
Hatchett encouraged open communication about any concerns, having to do with office placement or not. However, Cawthorne said it may not be so easy for students of color.
“Are you so sure they feel empowered to complain?” Cawthorne said. “If you don’t provide the space for them to do that, where they can feel comfortable saying that, they’re not going to. And that takes time and work.”

Walk & Talk unit

For STS students who live in public housing, the school is not the only environment in which police are more present than they would be for other students. At home, the Walk & Talk unit, a Community Outreach program comprising three officers, focuses solely on the properties under the Brookline Housing Authority (BHA) and seeks out stronger interpersonal relationships with the residents. But according to Kimberley Richardson, a BHA resident, much like the SRO position, the unit suffers from an incomplete picture.
“I didn’t know it was ever called an SRO. And as far as the Walk & Talk unit goes, I also didn’t know that they were called a Walk & Talk unit,” Richardson said. “All I knew is that when I first moved to Brookline, I always saw police officers around the public housing unit, and I didn’t understand why they were always here. But my thoughts were always, they’re here because they’re making sure that the people who live in public housing stay in line, so to speak.”
Richardson served on the Task Force’s subcommittee on the Walk & Talk unit, which looked into the history behind it. The unit was established in 1992, with mass incarceration at the national level ballooning during the War on Drugs. According to Walk & Talk Officer Tim Stephenson, this national context influenced the beginnings of the program, but it has since evolved.
“When it was created, from what I’ve heard, there was an issue with gangs and with drugs coming into the area and ending up in housing, and people from outside of housing coming in and trying to get some sort of an influence with drugs and gangs,” Stephenson said. “And so they set up this unit to go in there and try and keep that from happening. And since then, it has transformed to what it is now and what it has been for the last 17 years or so.”
Now, Stephenson said, it is a way for the police to connect with the low-income community, get to know the residents, and break down barriers.
Probing deeper into the details of the program, the Task Force uncovered something concerningly similar to their findings on the SRO position. Whereas the SRO developed its MOU behind closed doors, it appeared the Walk & Talk unit did not have any written expectations at all.
“That program’s been around for three decades. There’s never been an agreement signed between the Brookline Housing Authority and the Police Department of the town of Brookline,” Fernandez said. “There’s nothing about what the outcomes are supposed to be. There’s no program analysis that’s taken place in three decades. It just is.”
And according to the subcommittee’s report, since the early days of the program the BHA has been paying the BPD $15,000 annually in return for the Walk & Talk unit’s work. The subcommittee chair, Bonnie Bastien, said that the lack of written agreements has left too many questions open for such a large sum of money every year.
“That money exchange never had any documentation. It doesn’t have a contract, again, it doesn’t have any kind of anything that defines what that money is for,” Bastien said. “And so no one ever stopped it. I don’t know if it started exactly in the beginning or how much later after the beginning of the Walk & Talk program, but for decades, $15,000 moves from the BHA operating budget to the Brookline Police Department budget.”
Richardson said that the money could have gone to any number of places where the outcomes could have been more easily measured, given that the unit does not have any expectations set for what it should achieve.
“I’m all for the police, but I’m not all for the police making money in ways that they shouldn’t be,” Richardson said. “If we add up that money, do you know what kind of community center we could have had right here in public housing for the kids who don’t have a place to go?”
The subcommittee’s objective became very clear following this discovery: search for benefits to the community that outweighed the $15,000 expense.
The Police Reform Committee had a similar question, according to Hatchett, who led their subcommittee on Community Outreach, Youth, and Non-Traditional Roles. To understand public opinion on the program, they sent out a Walk & Talk survey to every resident of Brookline Housing Authority Properties. They received 70 responses. “Outstanding program,” one response said. “I would be delighted to meet the officers,” another said. Only 35 responded ‘yes’ when asked if they were familiar with the program, but an overwhelming number of residents both aware and unaware said they wanted the program to continue. Hatchett said she was not surprised, but that she was open to hearing that that was not the case.
“If the responses were no, then I would have had to have that tough conversation with three incredible members of my staff,” Hatchett said.
However, there were some issues with the demographics of their sample that Hatchett said they hope to address in further research.
“I would have liked to have seen more responses from residents who were people of color, more responses from residents who were youth,” Hatchett said. “We’re doing some follow-ups now to determine if residents who responded who were my age were responding for the lived experiences of their families, which might incorporate children.”
The subcommittee also plans to follow up with youth via the Brookline Teen Center, where Walk & Talk officers visit frequently and engage with students, mostly students of color. Overall, the survey included 27 people of color, including six Black people (by contrast, 26% of BHA residents overall are Black). Of those Black respondents, none were below 50 and none were male.

Just the existence of that hesitancy means that the Walk & Talk program is problematic.”

— Bonnie Bastien

According to O’Neal, a Town Meeting Member who lives in public housing, this gap in representation paints an incomplete picture.
“If they were to ask some Black males from around here around my age how they felt about the program, they would’ve got this {negative} answer, and they wouldn’t have gotten it so late. I don’t feel there was any outreach to people like me, on both committees, to Black males from the age of 50 and below,” O’Neal said.
On Tuesday, March 9, the BHA held a public comment period in its monthly meeting to discuss the Walk & Talk program. During that time, three Black male residents of public housing spoke about their experiences – all three critical of the program. One was O’Neal, and another was Adeniyi Ijanusi, who said he agreed that Black men needed more of a voice.
“I know personally Black young males that are not in support of that program. It makes people uncomfortable,” Ijanusi said. “And that dynamic hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed in Brookline, and the story with people of color and policing hasn’t changed.”
Part of the reason so few people of color filled out the survey, Richardson said, was for fear of retribution. The Task Force reported anonymous BHA residents saying they feared losing their tenancy for speaking up about the police. To be able to reach those hesitant to speak, they had to conduct one-on-one anonymous interviews and strike all identifying information. Richardson said she had felt that same fear of speaking up at one point early in her time in housing.
“I remember when I first moved here to Brookline and I kept saying, like, just stay the course, Kimberley, don’t make noise. Don’t say anything. Just go to work and come home, because you just need this place because your kids need to be in school,” Richardson said. “No one should have to feel like a prisoner in their home. I shouldn’t have to tell myself to stay the course, don’t let your voice be known because of being afraid of being homeless.”
To further corroborate the anonymous accounts they collected, Bastien and the Task Force reached out to third parties that have heard many residents’ stories.
“We’ve learned from organizations that work with many BHA residents that that is absolutely the truth, that they’ve heard many times that people fear for their tenancy at BHA,” Bastien said. “So just the existence of that hesitancy means that the Walk & Talk program is problematic. It means that their presence is a threat one way or another.”
According to Bastien, these individual accounts must be heard alongside the Reform Committee’s survey findings, because the survey sample skewed towards whiter respondents, meaning the voices of people of color need to be amplified even more to be considered.
“When Black and brown people specifically express discomfort or hesitancy or fear around this program, we have to pay special attention to it,” Bastien said. “Because when we bury those voices in the majority of white voices that are happy with the program, who don’t experience policing in the same way, then we end up upholding racist systems.”
Richardson said that no matter how small a proportion it is, dissenting voices, especially on a topic as grave as policing, need to be listened to and valued.
“If some of us don’t feel safe, that means the community isn’t safe,” Richardson said. “So if 10 people out of a thousand people here in Brookline housing don’t feel comfortable because of that Walk & Talk unit, because they feel like they’re being policed or they’re being targeted or being surveilled or whatever the feelings are, then it’s not working. Because those 10 people have to come home every single day and wonder and be afraid and think, ‘what’s going to happen?’”

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