Emily Wright is a PhD student at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
In her address on Tuesday, June 16th, Mayor Fuller announced her plan to form a nine-person independent Newton Police Reform Task Force, stating that this group will:
“undertake a holistic assessment of the [Newton Police] department and make recommendations on the policies, procedures, practices and overall strategic direction for Newton’s policing effort. Its’ work should be based on an understanding through surveys, focus groups or interviews of what people of color are experiencing in Newton.”
As a PhD student in social epidemiology who studies the impact of structural racism (e.g., policing, historical redlining, residential segregation) on population health and health equity, I write to express my profound concerns about this proposed task force and investigation.
First, the premise that Newton leadership needs an investigation of Newton Police Department policies, procedures, and practices to enact evidence-based reform to Newton public safety systems is problematic.
Despite Mayor Fuller’s multiple references to systemic racism in her speech, this premise remains grounded in the faulty notion that racism in policing is a police department- or police officer-level phenomenon. Even though individual police departments and police officers can indeed be particularly violent and discriminatory, racism in policing is part and parcel of structural racism. This term refers to “the totality of ways in which societies foster discrimination, via mutually reinforcing systems of discrimination (e.g., in housing, education, employment, earnings, benefits, credit, media, health care, criminal justice, etc.) that in turn reinforce discriminatory beliefs, values, and distribution of resources.” By limiting this task force to the study of the Newton Police Department, the Mayor’s proposal elides an opportunity to more broadly examine how racial and economic segregation, zoning law and historical redlining, policing, incarceration, and other phenomena operating within Newton city limits and beyond pattern the health, safety, opportunities, and needs of Newton residents, including in relation to who lives in Newton in the first place.
Relatedly, this premise overlooks decades of activism and empirical research from diverse fields. For example, research in social epidemiology demonstrates how policing and incarceration powerfully shape health and well-being, not only for individuals and families who directly experience them, but also for the broader population. Scholarship in the field of criminology describes alternatives (e.g., transformative justice) to a retributive justice system based on punishment for crime. Furthermore, the work of other cities, states, and nations to (re)imagine policing can provide instructive examples for Newton. Learning about the work of these other scholars, governing bodies, and social movements must be a necessary part of this task force’s work because it will undoubtedly facilitate the empirical and imaginative process of proposing new possibilities for protecting public safety while promoting equity.
In brief, the Mayor’s proposal that we need to study the problem of racism in policing in Newton specifically to be able to do something about it ignores the broader structural context, overlooks evidence from myriad sources attesting to the need and options for bold action, and insinuates a distrust or de-centering of the “subjective” experiences and demands of Black constituents Mayor Fuller and various City Councilors have repeatedly referenced in recent days.
Second, the aim of this investigation and how its results will be used is unclear.
The Mayor’s proposal asks for Newton residents, especially Black residents and other residents of Color, to invest their time and emotional energy to be interviewed, attend focus groups, and complete surveys. It is of the utmost importance for Newton leadership to be able to provide a concrete answer the following seemingly obvious question: Why?
Is the aim, as the Mayor’s proposal seems to suggest, to examine whether policing discriminates against and causes disproportionate harm to Black and other Newton residents of Color? If so, I would argue that, in keeping with my first point, we already have the answer to this question. Robust empirical evidence attests to the racist nature of historical and contemporary policing practices and policies in the United States, as well as the impacts this has on individuals, families, and the broader population. Moreover, accounts from Black and other Newton residents of Color in recent days and weeks attests to how these structural phenomena impact folks within city limits. Asking residents to share their stories of police encounters, and potentially re-traumatize themselves in the process, is no small request, especially if the evidence we seek already exists.
Relatedly, Newton leadership must ask itself how it plans to interpret the findings of this task force’s investigation, whatever its aims may be. Consider what might happen if the task force finds that Newton residents of Color describe fear and collective trauma from policing, but that there are no large disparities in arrests or use of force by the Newton Police Department. Would City Councilors, Police Department leadership, and the Mayor interpret this as evidence the Newton is somehow the exception to the rule of racist national and international systems of policing and incarceration and, thus, decide not to take any action? Would the methodological and statistical limitations of the task force’s investigation be taken into consideration? More importantly, would these Newton-specific findings be interpreted in appropriate structural and historical context?
What this task force studies and how Newton leadership plans to interpret and act upon the results are consequential questions at the core of any scientific investigation. Without clarity on these issues, this task force will, at best, be a waste of time and resources and, at worst, will actively harm Newton residents and undermine broader work to re-imagine public safety.
Third, even if we assume an investigation of this kind is warranted, serious questions about the composition, funding, and work of the task force remain.
To start, the Mayor has given community members only one week – from her announcement on Tuesday, June 16th to the application deadline on Monday, June 22nd – to apply to be on this committee. Although I understand the need to respond expeditiously in this moment of national anguish and mobilization, this quick turnaround does not offer adequate time for Newton residents, especially low-income folks and Black and other People of Color who ought to be represented, to consider the serious investment of time and labor that would come with joining this task force. Similarly, by calling for the task force to begin meeting in the first week of July, the Mayor has given her staff only one week to select the nine task force members.
The Mayor has also not provided any guidance about the criteria with which task force members will be selected or how they will be compensated for their time and labor. The proposed investigation constitutes a major empirical undertaking including both primary data collection in the form of surveys, focus groups, and/or interviews as well as secondary analysis of existing Newton Police Department data. These kinds of analyses are each intensive processes that require resources and substantive and methodological expertise to conduct rigorously. Despite this, the Mayor is asking for this work to be done by part-time community volunteers.
In a recent study by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement of 97 US police civilian oversight programs, 12 out of 17 (70.6%) agencies with similar investigatory powers/parameters to the one proposed by Mayor Fuller (and 50% of all 76 agencies that provided data) had yearly operating budgets from over $250,000 to over $1 million. This is more than the entire $200,000 amount transferred from the Newton police cruisers budget to the Mayor’s office to help hire a facilitator or consultant for the task force. In this same study, 17 out of 23 (73.9%) similar agencies (and 66% of all 90 agencies that provided data) had at least one full-time paid professional staff member. These findings help to demonstrate the monumental task of conducting a holistic assessment of a police department and, thus, the absurdity of the request being made of Newton residents.
Finally, the proposed work of this task force presents significant ethical concerns. How will the task force compensate participants for their time and effort? Researchers conducting interviews, focus groups, and surveys typically provide participants with cash or gift cards to help offset the work of participating. Asking Black and other Newton residents of Color to participate in a focus group or interview and share their experiences of policing without compensating them would be exploitative. Similarly, how will interview, focus group, and/or survey data be stored, managed, and shared to protect participants’ privacy? Asking Black and other Newton residents of Color to share potentially damaging information about Newton Police Department officers or practices without properly protecting their identity of protecting potential retaliation would violate principles of human subjects research and put Newton community members in harm’s way.
Overall, although the Mayor’s proposal to form a task force to conduct a holistic assessment of the Newton Police Department may initially appear to be a strong, measured commitment to evidence-based reform in response to sustained community pressure, this proposal raises profound questions about the role of theoretical framing, evidence, and expertise in re-imaging public safety.
Krieger, N. Discrimination and Health Inequities. International Journal of Health Services 44, 643–710 (2014).