With police controversy&reform and unnecessary elections in Boston being currently debated, I thought I'd send two articles (both below) from a few months ago that deal with these issues. The first explains why we have a mainly white and male police force that comes from the military and what can be done to change that. The second discusses how we can save money and double Boston's election turnout by making a change in the city's charter. Thanks for reading.

Reimagining the city's police force: Begin with the hiring 
By Bill Walczak, Reporter Contributor
June 17, 2020

The continuing killings of black men by police officers in the United States and the national and world-wide protests against these crimes have spurred demands for changes in policing policies and practices that vary from a range of incremental police reforms to a full-scale reimagining of how we ensure our communities’ safety.

I’m on the side of reimagining. Let’s start with looking at how we hire police officers.

I have spent most of my work life in health care where the hiring for positions follows the standard practice for employment in most professions: You look at what you’re trying to accomplish and at what outcomes you’d like to see, then design both the duties and the characteristics of the people you’d like to hire.  

For example, you’d want a primary care doctor to be licensed and to have gone through a residency. Once you know that he or she has the qualifications to be a good candidate for the position on paper, an interview follows where you look for characteristics that would make the doctor a person who is easy to speak with, who is caring of others, who is not biased against the patients the doctor is likely to see, who has empathy for those who have an illness/disease, who can handle a patient in crisis, who is a team player who can easily get along with colleagues, who is good at follow up, and who can handle difficult patients. Then you conduct reference checks to make sure the person’s work record is as recounted in the interview.

How is a Boston police officer hired? The City of Boston website indicates that you need to take a civil service exam (a multiple choice test held every two years by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts), have a driver’s license, be between 19 and 40 (veterans can be older), have a high school diploma, or GED, or 3 years of military service, and to have lived in Boston for a year prior to the test. 

If you pass the multiple-choice exam, your name is placed on a “Boston Police Officer Eligible List.” The Boston Police Department takes candidates based on the list. The next part of the process involves a background check, a drug test, and a review of the application by detectives. If you get through this part of the process, you receive a “conditional offer,” which is followed by medical and psychological exams, and a tests of your physical abilities. If you pass everything, selection for a position is based on your rank on the “eligible list.”

There are many problems with this system. Like medical providers, the ability of police officers to be successful in ensuring peace and safety depends on characteristics like judgment, empathy, being unbiased, and able to handle people in crisis. Indeed, much of policing is about dealing with behavioral issues like drug/alcohol abuse, domestic violence, suicidal ideation, and violent tendencies, so you might assume that rank in the “eligible” list would include a higher position for those who are social workers or from a human service background. But you would be wrong. 

Rank is mostly determined by military veteran status. Veterans with honorable discharges go to the top of the police lists. While that’s a great benefit for former soldiers, it has other negative impacts on how our police departments are constituted. 

A 2017 study by the Marshall Project and USA Today noted that “the prevalence of military veterans can … complicate relations between police and the communities they are meant to serve.” The Marshall Project report added that Massachusetts is one of two states with the “most favorable laws for vets seeking police work. An honorably discharged veteran skips to the top of police hiring lists, which makes it more difficult to hire women and minorities.” According to census data, more than 90 percent of Massachusetts veterans are “non-Hispanic White” and 95 percent are male. 

The most-favored status for veterans also makes it difficult to hire staff competent in dealing with behavioral issues. Former Boston Police Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole noted in the Marshall study that veterans’ preference makes it hard to change the culture of policing, saying, “I want to attract people with very different skill sets. We are facing complicated issues with people who are in crisis every day. Why wouldn’t I want people who majored in human services? Or psychology or sociology?”

The Marshall Project report also noted that “in Boston, for every 100 cops with some military service, there were more than 28 complaints of excessive force from 2010 to 2015. For every 100 cops with no military service, there were fewer than 17 complaints.”

So, my question is this: If our goal for policing is peace and safety, why do we recruit people trained as warriors rather than as social workers? Communities have told elected officials that they would prefer preventive policing with walking patrols, electronic alert systems to let people know when criminal acts are occurring in their communities, and systems to deal with families in crisis. 

The time has come to reimagine how Boston can ensure peace and safety across our city, and we need to think and act boldly. We should stop giving military veterans priority in employment if we value a different set of skills than military training and make as our goal a more diverse workforce that is gender-balanced and reflective of the racial and linguistic make up of our city. 

We need to create different types of positions for different types of policing, some to deal with criminal acts, and some to deal with behavioral issues. A major part of policing is resolving conflicts with people with domestic issues and with those who have behavioral issues, such as mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse. We need to look for people trained to work on those issues. 

Reimagining policing includes opting out of the Civil Service system, as more than 20 Massachusetts municipalities have already done. Boston needs to be enabled to craft the policing system it believes will work best, and then hire the people, including many more women and persons of color, most qualified to provide the services the city needs to ensure peace and safety for its residents.

How to increase turnout (and save money) in Boston elections: Eliminate odd-numbered year balloting 

By Bill Walczak, Reporter Contributor
July 15, 2020

Democracy wilts with low voter turnouts.  When turnout is low, vested interests are typically the winners, which creates an imbalance in governance. The 2019 city council elections produced a turnout of 11.17 percent in the preliminary election and 16.5 percent in the final election, which meant that of the 402,536 people in Boston who were registered to vote at the time of the election, only 44,972 cast ballots in September, and only 67,011 voted in November. Put another way, in September, 357,564 registered Boston voters didn’t vote, and in November, 335,525 declined to participate in the election.

The main story out of that campaign was the close race between Julia Mejia and Alejandra St. Guillen for the fourth and final seat in the at-large (citywide) balloting, which was ultimately decided by one vote: 22,492 to 22,491.  The scandal of the election is that while one vote determined who won and who lost, 335,525 registered voters decided not to cast a vote. 

I looked at the last 10 years of voting in Boston and noted that the percentage of voters who went to the polls depended on which offices are on the ballot.  While that may be obvious to most, a deeper analysis shows a way to increase turnout for municipal elections.

The data show that the November elections held in even-numbered years, when state and federal office holders are elected, averaged 56.4 percent turnout of registered voters, whereas odd-numbered year balloting, when only municipal offices are elected, averaged exactly half that, at 23.2 percent (see charts, with information from boston.gov).

Which leads me to the following conclusion: With the average  number of registered voters in election years between 2010 and 2019 at 380,008, eliminating the odd-number year balloting and putting election of all offices on the ballot in even-number years would increase the potential turnout for city office elections by 88,162 on average, doubling the actual average turnouts in the last decade.

Significantly, having elections only in even years would eliminate the costs of the preliminary and general elections in odd-numbered years, estimated at upwards of $1.5million.

Having our municipal elections held in odd-numbered years dates back almost 100 years to when Boston’s Charter was amended to read:  “Beginning in the year nineteen hundred and twenty- five, the municipal election in said city shall take place biennially in every odd numbered year on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.”  According to its introduction, the Charter is “a series of State statutes and not a single code.” It has been amended numerous times, as recently as 1993. So, it could be changed to determine that “municipal elections shall take place on the date of state elections.”  

Coordination with state elections would be necessary. The Secretary of  State’s Election Office notes that while all elections are administered by the cities and towns in which they are held, the state has responsibility for state elections (e.g., determining and printing up the ballots and overseeing the voting), and municipal election management is the responsibility of the city.  So changing state election law to mandate that municipal offices be voted on at the same time and same ballot as state offices would require changes in the state election laws. But the State Election Office also notes that if there were separate ballots and systems for state and municipal offices, it would be less of a problem to have all offices elected on the same day, instead of separate years. Lastly, it would require a onetime fix: An additional year would be added to the current terms of the mayor and the city councillors so that future elections would be in sync.

Some could make the case that separating state election bureaucratic oversight from city election bureaucratic oversight was, and is, a good enough reason for why the election process is set up the way it is. However, with many changes happening, or likely to happen, to the election system, this is the time to take on the timing of the balloting. A change might even result in more competitive city elections.

Given the likely doubling of the number of Boston voters who would get a ballot for city council and mayoral races if municipal elections were held on the same date as state balloting, –and given the money to be saved by eliminating unnecessary elections – I don’t see a good reason to continue holding elections in odd-numbered years. 

Bill Walczak of Dorchester is the co-founder of the Codman Square Health Center and was a candidate for Mayor of Boston in 2013. His column appears weekly in the Reporter.