A fork in the road forward


March 16, 2021

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

Over the summer, when the Task Force to Reimagine Policing and the Committee on Policing Reforms were formed, Brookline was engaging in a national conversation that had reached new peaks of ambition. Daily protests had entered the word “defund” into our collective lexicon as well as warrant articles for the town’s upcoming Town Meeting. When the two proposals to cut funds from BPD were voted down on June 30, the call to examine the institution at its core was emphatically taken up by the Task Force and Raul Fernandez, although he stopped short of using the same language.
“Try to catch anybody using the word ‘defund’ or anything. I haven’t told anybody not to say that word, it’s just that’s not what our work is about,” Fernandez said.
But Fernandez said that in keeping with the tone of the protests, they set out knowing that they would need to think big.
“Folks have been promised, for decades, that this is going to be the reform that makes it all better. This is the one that’s going to do it. And those reforms simply haven’t delivered,” Fernandez said. “And so seeing all those people out there, and being among them, there’s two ideas that creeped into my mind. One was a feeling of déjà vu, like I’ve been out here before. We’ve all been out here before and didn’t get the change we wanted. And this other sense that maybe we were asking for the wrong thing. Maybe we’ve been too focused on that, on presuming that the solution to our problems is police, rather than stepping back and finding a new way forward.”
At the same time, the Committee on Policing Reforms was starting its work. Led by Bernard Greene, the Select Board Chair, the Committee came to the table with a very different outlook on policing in Brookline. Their mission, stated on the town website, was to “identify for recommendation to the Select Board any immediate improvements to the policies and practices of the Brookline Police Department,” independent of any of the systemic work the Task Force was doing. Reform Committee member and police sergeant Casey Hatchett said a measured approach continues to be the correct way to address the issues in the department, as evidenced by the long tradition of reforms in the BPD.
“I think it’s hard for people to understand that policing is in a constant state of reform and re-imagining,” Hatchett said. “I’ve been with the department for 22 years, and policing today looks almost nothing like it did 20 years ago.”
As July became September, December and then March, this difference in outlook caused the two groups to diverge greatly in findings, and ultimately, recommendations.

Recommendations for School Resource Officers

The committees came to agree that the SRO must at least be integrated more completely into the school community, operating with more communication with administrators and more public input.
The Reform Committee’s report recommends that “the SROs be included in the PSB teacher training/professional development that is relevant to student safety, racial justice, bullying and social media/online usage, and additional topics deemed relevant.”
Malcolm Cawthorne said that in looking for case studies in which the SRO program has been most effective, the Task Force found the Evanston, Illinois school district. The Task Force spoke with a representative from Evanston about how their SROs used a similar integration strategy, attending professional development trainings like Brookline’s SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity), faculty meetings and administrative meetings.
“They’re truly entrenched in the community. There, it’s as if yes, they’re Evanston police, but they’re also Evanston township high school staff,” Cawthorne said. “And that’s the thing I keep trying to push the police on. If you tell me it’s community, this is what I want to see.”
But the Task Force, motivated by what they learned about transparency and communication, went a step further. Their report recommended the removal of SROs from schools, saying their presence “undermines the pillars of safety and community that are needed for students to thrive in our schools.”
Since 2014, state law required that each school district have at least one SRO. Though it did not mandate that the SRO be stationed within any schools, the model Memorandum of Understanding provided in the law made it difficult to avoid. Compliance with this law was the chief reason for the beginning of the SRO program in 2018, the Task Force found. On December 31, 2020, Governor Baker signed into law a Police Reform Bill that ended the SRO requirement. According to Cawthorne, the recognition from the state that SROs were not needed solidified the Task Force’s conviction to remove them.
The Task Force’s report also contains a fallback plan Cawthorne said he was confident would improve the program if the recommendation for removal is not taken. The plan includes integrating the SRO more thoroughly, as the Reforms Committee also recommends and as Evanston has successfully done, and opening the discussion up for more people to weigh in.
“If the town insists upon the SRO position, that insistence must be done through a rigorous public process,” the report states. “It cannot come solely from the Select Board––not after the profound lack of transparency surrounding the implementation of this position.”
For Emy Takinami ‘12, a former Steps to Success (STS) student, current STS board member and local organizer, the key to all of the Task Force’s recommendations is this public process. So long as the community is being listened to fully, she said, the outcome will be an improvement.
“Who is determining that that is exactly what these students and young people need? It did not seem like a community-driven, student-driven process. I don’t think the Steps students got together with METCO and Scholars and said, okay, out of everything we could ask for from this pot of money, this pot of resources, we want this SRO position,” Takinami said. “If they land on that after a thorough community engagement process, then that’s a different story, but that’s not how the process went.”
According to Takinami, STS has been requesting a social worker, specifically for its K-8 program, for some time. Filling that position would to her be a just and equitable use of the money saved by removing SROs – investing in “upstream” mental health resources that address the root causes of problems so that those students can avoid needing more serious intervention later on.
“It’s a community who knows their needs asking for something tangible. They’re not just saying, we need more support. They’re saying we need a social worker in the K-8, and they have not received one yet,” Takinami said. “And that, I think, is saying something to whose needs are we prioritizing. Who are the SROs for? Clearly not the group of people who’ve been asking specifically for a tangible role that probably those resources could have gone towards.”

Recommendations for the Walk & Talk unit

Facing similar concerns about transparency, the two committees took similar approaches in assessing the Walk & Talk unit as they did for the SRO position. The reports agreed that a formal contract between BPD and BHA would be necessary to clear up any uncertainties. According to Sergeant Casey Hatchett, it was likely just an oversight that no formal documents were signed when the program started.
“30 years ago maybe MOU’s really weren’t the way we did things,” Hatchett said. “But I agree that that’s something we should have, a joint mission statement stating what the goals are and our commitment, both the police department and Brookline Housing Authority, to establish these relationships and make them the most positive experience for their residents.”
Hatchett and the Reforms Committee came to their conclusions using the survey of BHA properties that they conducted, in which a vast majority of responses indicated satisfaction with the Walk & Talk program. In contrast, the Task Force’s research included anonymous reports of fear of coming forward about bad experiences, as well as firsthand accounts of the bad experiences of several residents of color. This research led them to suspect non-response bias in the survey and suggest that the program had disparate outcomes for people of color.
This suspicion was critical in the Task Force’s recommendation: to fully eliminate the Walk & Talk program, with keeping the program but formalizing a contract as an alternative. Fernandez said that the sunsetting of this program is necessary to move towards a more transparent alternative.
“No analysis, no measurable outcomes for the community, no regular review of these programs, nothing, nothing, nothing,” Fernandez said. “And we’re spending precious dollars on that when instead we could be investing in social services that have deeper, more durable, intergenerational impacts on people in our community.”
According to Bonnie Bastien, this recommendation intentionally left the question of execution an open one, because it is important for the community to decide what that looks like.
“Whether that is removing it right away or slowly building up social service alongside the Walk & Talk program, so that it can be dismantled piece by piece, so people don’t feel like something is being taken from them, but also respecting the people who don’t feel like they get anything from it. That’s going to require more conversations with the community to figure out what the best approach is,” Bastien said.
Given the hesitancy of many community members to discuss the program, Bastien understands this conversation could remain difficult going forward. Regardless, she said she sees it as an investment in trust that, for too long, the town has not made.
“We commit to building trust. That’s what we do. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, that’s what we’ve seen in the last six months. You can’t just say, we want to know what you think,” Bastien said. “It’s a long-term process. The idea that we’re going to understand what a community needs within the next few months is wrong-headed.”
The Reforms Committee report pointed out that all precincts have local patrol officers on their beats, ready for calls in the neighborhood. Greene said that such officers would constitute a regression in the quality of policing for residents of public housing, were Walk & Talk to be eliminated.
“The Task Force says end Walk & Talk. Now, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean that it won’t be police in the housing authority properties,” Greene said. “It means it just won’t be {Walk & Talk officers}, just regular cops. Which are fine, because they’re trained to handle the types of situations that’ll come up, but they won’t have the type of relationships and comfort levels that the Walk & Talk officers have. And that’s important.”
However, the Task Force’s recommendations include the suggestion to replace the unit with new support systems for BHA residents, as a supplement to the usual patrol officers. Resident Kimberley Richardson said that social work may have an even greater impact on the community by addressing issues further upstream, much like an STS social worker would as a replacement for the SRO.
“Part of the reason why I decided to go to school to be a social worker was because I worked in the court system, and I see brown and Black boys and girls come through the system every day. And I keep thinking to myself, if they just had a social worker in school, they just had a social worker connected with their community, something, that maybe they wouldn’t be here right now,” Richardson said. “So I think social workers are essential, and I don’t think they need to be in the police department.”
Of course, social workers, even those with mental health crisis training, have a different skill set than police officers, which Greene said would make replacement potentially dangerous.
“Sometimes a social worker, no matter how skilled, is not going to be able to handle a volatile situation that doesn’t necessarily require use of force, but does require the type of training that is kind of unique to policing,” Greene said. “How to have the threat of force, but also how to do de-escalation of situations so that it could be handled without the use of force. Now, social workers have those skills, but it’s at a different level.”

Reaching broader proposals

Both groups developed larger plans for the BPD and public safety, of which the SRO and Walk & Talk recommendations are only branches. To get to their big picture suggestions, they had to take a step back and broadly examine the police department’s current practices, and in doing so, came to very different conclusions. Greene and the Reform Committee emphasized past reforms in saying that only a few targeted changes remained to be made.
“Everyone knows that the Brookline police department is a very good department, both statewide as well as nationally. We’re absolutely very good. And no one can deny that,” Greene said. “But no one’s perfect. And the police department’s not perfect. So there are a lot of things that we need to improve.”
This belief was reflected in the wording of the Committee’s report, which suggests reforms to improve “our very good, but not perfect Brookline Police Department.” Fernandez said he does not think such an unequivocal characterization is fair.
“I think that’s a dangerous place to start the conversation because there’s a certain human tendency to believe something’s not a problem for anyone because it’s not a problem for you,” Fernandez said. “But generally speaking, it’s a way of being really dismissive and frankly erasing the stories that so many people shared at these protests last year.”
Jonathan Mande, having been one of the people who spoke at the protests, said that when he joined the Reform Committee, it surprised him how infallible Greene and others saw the police to be. Mande left the Reform Committee due to family health problems, but he said that the approach of the Committee prevented them from engaging in more productive, impactful conversations.
“I don’t believe in tribalism. I don’t believe in idolizing a certain viewpoint so much that you stick within your own tribe and therefore you have to bend together to work against other people and other forces. I don’t believe in that,” Mande said. “I do believe in justice, however, and I didn’t see that justice play out in the way Bernard Greene led the Committee on Police Reform.”
Part of a just approach, according to resident and activist Savyon Cohen, is avoiding bias in your sources of information and counsel. Cohen said she thought this mark was the biggest difference in approach between the two committees.
“One relied essentially on the police for information about the police. That was the reform,” Cohen said. “One used the police constantly. I don’t think reform ever had a meeting where there weren’t police in attendance, being paid to attend.”
Cohen submitted a public records request to determine the extent of such a payment, saying she saw it as holding the committee’s potential recommendations back. What she found was that Former Chief Dan O’Leary, who served as an expert consultant, was paid $125 an hour to do so, for a total of over $100,000 since July.
Hatchett was also compensated for her work on the Committee, at the overtime rate of $60 an hour. Other officers who appeared before the Committee were paid overtime as well, though at slightly lower rates. No other Committee members nor Task Force members were paid for their work.

Fernandez and several others said that the paid participation of officers impacted the conclusions of the Committee – a subcommittee led by a police officer would be hesitant to recommend cuts to the department, they said. According to Fernandez, if we cannot openly question the department, we will never know whether they are worth questioning.
“I just think what we need are bodies in towns that are willing to interrogate, challenge, confront the way that we do things. And if departments like the police department can withstand that challenge, well then we all have more faith in exactly what they’re doing,” Fernandez said. “But if we fail to challenge them in that way, then how can anyone have faith that this department is working well and in the best interest of the community?”
The Task Force took a different route, holding several public hearings to ask the community what they wanted public safety to look like. But according to Fernandez, they decided that approach could not be the only one they took. A survey of the community as a whole, not just those adamant enough to speak up at hearings, was needed to determine what people really thought about the department and in what areas it may be changed.
“We didn’t know how Brookline residents were going to respond to all these questions. But what we knew was if people were going to find validity in our report and our findings and our recommendations, that it had to be grounded somewhere,” Fernandez said. “And of course, we engaged in a robust process of community engagement. But we know that some people need to see hard numbers.”
The Task Force worked with Tufts University to administer a town wide survey, which received over 1,300 respondents and was weighted to be demographically representative of the town as a whole. It indicated general satisfaction with the police department, but also a consensus that they should not be the ones doing certain jobs, like addressing mental health and substance abuse crises.
Anne Weaver, who served on the Task Force’s subcommittee on Vulnerable People and People in Crisis, said that the survey is a mandate to action on something the police department has already identified.
“The BPD folks that have been doing this kind of work, when they ask them about, why are you doing this work? {They} readily state that ‘we’re filling a gap,’” Weaver said. “There weren’t enough services and support. So we started trying to figure out ways of being able to support our community.”

Final proposals

The recommendations of the Committee on Policing Reforms center around a Police Commissioner Advisory Committee (PCAC). Greene said the PCAC will give the Select Board a much greater ability to exercise its Police Commissioner duties, as well as offer an external system for submitting and reviewing complaints and disciplining officers – essentially a civilian oversight board. A representative from the Office of Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations (ODICR) would sit on this committee and help with receiving complaints, which until now has been difficult for the five person Select Board to do.
“That {liaison} would both provide assistance to complainants, but also be the one person that would receive outside comments from the public,” Greene said. “The PCAC is designed for Brookline and our situation. And it provides way more than we really probably need, but it’s still a way of connecting the Select Board to its oversight of the police department that we need.”
According to Brian Corr, the executive director of the city of Cambridge’s Police Review and Advisory Board and the former president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), tailoring civilian oversight to a community’s needs is the most important thing to get it to work.
“The bigger picture is about making policing and law enforcement and public safety appropriate to the community, and providing that public safety in a way that really takes care of the whole community,” Corr said. “And civilian oversight is part of that.”
According to Reform Committee member Raj Dhanda, who voted against adopting the committee’s final recommendations, they stop short of meaningful, lasting change.
“It does not address the question of really ground-up conversations with people who have been at the short end of how the police treat people of color,” Dhanda said. “That’s what has been missing in this whole thing.”
Greene said that these conversations are hard to facilitate in practice, which is why the Reform Committee is focusing on smaller, more precise changes now and plans to continue its outreach work well into the future.
“The things that we’re proposing are not earth-shaking. They’re just improvements that are going to make policing a lot better for all residents,” Greene said. “{But} the PCAC will, I think, clearly show its value in helping the Select Board be more proactive in its role in policing.”
However, Mande said that a broader approach could be what leads to a meaningful change in policing.
“It’s not just about saying let’s patch something here and there, and do a duct tape job, and call it done,” Mande said. “No it’s about reconstructing. It’s about undoing, unfolding and redesigning. Reimagining the fabrics that we’re going to lay before us in the years, decades ahead. If we don’t do that, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot, because we’re gonna get back to the same drawing board time and time again and then ask why we didn’t do things differently.”
Corr also said that civilian oversight has a limit to its impact, and that to truly achieve lastingly equitable policing, towns need to look upstream, working on solving the problems on the front end so that fewer complaints come in.
“One of the things that I think is so important about oversight in the big picture is this idea of front-end accountability,” Corr said. “Let’s work with the community to create the standards and make sure we’re doing the types of training that address the needs of the community, as opposed to waiting for things to go wrong, and then figuring out how we address the problems. Accountability is necessary, but really when you’re holding people accountable, there’s already been harm done.”
That front-end accountability is what the Task Force landed on after hearing from residents and doing extensive research. Fernandez said that addressing the needs of the community in a new way is the crux of the Task Force’s recommendations.
“We’re spending so much money on addressing the symptoms of inequities, rather than investing in programs that address the root causes of those inequities,” Fernandez said. “And that’s what we propose.”
The Task Force recommends a new social service department, Brookline Forward, that would be a new catch-all for any number of issues that people currently call on the police to do. According to Fernandez, it would oversee and coordinate the ODICR, the Council on Aging and more, as well as creating new departments to focus on on youth and family services and immigrant services.
“We’ve clearly identified, for the needs that we have, that we want to shift resources away from the police department,” Fernandez said. “That is strongly endorsed by the community, shifting away from the police engaging in things that aren’t explicitly about fighting crime and investigating crime, and towards other much needed services.”
In their town wide survey, the Task Force found that upwards of 80 percent of people supported moving response to mental health crises and homelessness away from the police department and towards social workers. Brookline Forward would hire such social workers, who would be unarmed and trained in these specific scenarios, to be available on call.
The resounding support for shifting these duties increased the Task Force’s resolve. People want these changes, Fernandez said, and it is the duty of the town government to follow through with them. The Task Force is determined to hear from everyone they can to extend the findings of their survey, before and after the crucial public hearing on Tuesday, March 16.
“I want to speak to as many people as possible, offer myself and make myself available,” Fernandez said. “I think people are engaging with the substance of our recommendations. And I want to keep doing that until the public hearing, but then even two more weeks until ultimately the Select Board vote, to just make sure that I’m available to talk to whoever wants to talk about this.”
Public conversation has been and remains crucial, both to raise awareness and dispel notions that the Task Force is overstepping in ambition. The plans are logical and feasible, Fernandez said, and there are simple steps he is asking for the Select Board to take now to set the direction for the larger work.
“We’re not going to eliminate the Walk & Talk program today, or the School Resource Officer today, but we’re going to commit to shifting resources from those programs to this other approach,” Fernandez said. “And we’re going to show that we’re committed to that by putting in this budget, the one that we’re going to pass in May, the hiring of a commissioner to develop and ultimately oversee this new department.”
Approaching the March 30 vote, the possibility that Brookline could be paving the way has been a source of excitement for Takinami and many others.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this involved in local government until this point in time, because it’s something that connects a national conversation that’s happening to the local level, and realizing that we can’t let our community off the hook just because there hasn’t been a high profile police murder. We don’t want to get to that point. That’s not fair. And we know it’s happening here. We know there’s racism, we know there’s systemic racism,” Takinami said. “We have a huge opportunity right now to be part of leading the country around reimagining. Brookline could potentially be at the forefront, if we take on some of these reimagining goals.”

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  • J

    JaneApr 9, 2021 at 6:42 am

    Thanks for your thorough dive into police reform/reimagining in Brookline. I learned a lot, and it will inform Select Board vote this May.
    Keep up the great work!