Commonwealth Magazine

BOSTON IS APPROACHING an unusual opportunity to create a bold program of police reform: the leaders of the police and the prosecution will take office around the same time. The parallel to this is the early 1990s when Paul Evans became police commissioner about 19 months after prosecutor Ralph Martin Suffolk. The couple became key partners and leaders, alongside then-U.S. Attorney Donald Stern, in developing a youth violence strategy that at the time influenced practice in United States and around the world. Kevin Hayden, who was recently appointed Suffolk DA by Governor Baker, helped guide this youth violence effort as a young assistant DA in Martin’s office and head of Martin’s Safe Neighborhoods Initiative. If Mayor Wu chooses his new police commissioner wisely, another revolution in the practice of criminal justice is possible. In 2022, the big strategic opportunity is to reduce and eliminate systemic racialization in the criminal justice process.

The use of “racialization” rather than “racism” here comes from the writing of John A. Powell, racial equity expert and law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “’Racialization’ evokes a process rather than a static event,” he writes. “It underscores the fluid and dynamic nature of race…Structural racialization is a set of processes that can generate disparities or depress life outcomes without any racist actor. Systemic racialization describes a dynamic system that produces and reproduces racial ideologies, identities, and inequalities. Systemic racialization is the well-institutionalized pattern of discrimination that runs through the major political, economic and social organizations of a society.

To assert that understanding and eliminating systemic racialization is not “everything” new leaders should do or be is to underestimate the scope and power of systemic racialization. Years of research indicate that racialization sometimes distorts and disrupts the process, from how many investigative practices are selected and deployed to the history and administration of the sweeping drug laws that guide so much of the police diary. Systemic racialization affects officer safety and how people are prosecuted and convicted. It influences macro decisions in executive suites and micro decisions in patrol car and district court seats.

Systemic racialization affects officer safety, for example, when officers are unaware of how implicit bias works in the human brain. Bias will cause officers to look for danger in the wrong places and miss the real source of the threat. In investigations, we have seen examples, such as in the findings of the federal court in New York, of large numbers of black men being arrested outside the privileges and restrictions of the stop and search process such as established by the Supreme Court. Are government departments too quick to serve no-knock warrants in minority communities? Especially in the case of arrest warrants, there are many safer and less expensive alternatives. Every “mistake” costs individuals, communities and police services dearly.

The Boston Police Department and its wider community have laid a solid foundation on which to build this effort. It’s not easy to see amid the swirling controversial cases, but we have the makings of a powerful dialogue. CommonwealthMichael Jonas of Michael Jonas captured it in a recent article and podcast about the city’s success defying national trends during the pandemic that has seen big spikes in homicides.

About a degree of separation exists between the harshest critics of the police department and senior police leaders. (In practical terms, the leadership of the police department includes the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.) The same goes for the district attorney’s office. I believe that because of our deeply entangled and distorted history with race, we are uniquely positioned to see how systemic racialization is marred into our systems. Boston always talks about race because we have been historically compelled to do so. Somewhere in the whole discourse are the answers. In the long term, understanding the issues will require dialogue and a bold analysis of facts and figures. Leaders will have to get people talking and listening to each other a lot more.

The new criminal justice direction may turn the elimination of systemic racialization into what business strategist Jim Collins calls the “hedgehog concept.” Collins borrows from Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 literary essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In Collins’ opinion, the hedgehog knows one thing essential to its success. Collins, whose ideas have been circulating in police executive offices for years, put it this way: “A hedgehog concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to to be the best, a plan to be the best. It’s an understanding of what you can be best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.

While the opportunity is immediate, the work is long term. It will not be completed under the tenure of a new prosecutor and a new police commissioner. The new duo will have to combine humility and intense dynamism to put us on the right track.

Jim Jordan is the retired Director of Strategic Planning for the Boston Police Department. He has taught police strategy at Northeastern University, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and training institutions across the country.

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