POLICE AT MASSACHUSETTS rarely shoots anyone. According to the latest Washington post Analysis, Massachusetts is virtually tied for the lowest rate of shootings involving officers in the United States – six per million population. (Rhode Island has the least with four per million; New York is also experiencing shootings involving officers at the annual rate of six shots per million.)
Massachusetts officers face the same complicated encounters as those encountered by personnel from other states. They face the same risks, real and potential. But the encounters just don’t end with the same rate of police firing at civilians as in many other states. When you consider how many Bay Staters with access to a gun are currently being bothered by alcohol and drugs, six in a million is a remarkable rate. As we advocate for police reform, this fact should not be overlooked.
How is the use of lethal force in Massachusetts different? Decades of observation and study have led me to conclude that the reasons for fewer police shootings are cultural. Even with a history of many genuine controversies and a few foofaraws, most Massachusetts police departments have maintained a connection with the community. In general, officers maintain an identification with the people in the communities they serve. Most of them see themselves as stakeholders rather than outsiders. The downside to this phenomenon is that a history of residential segregation in Massachusetts means that most departments continue to be disproportionately white. We can have various police services that maintain an issue in the health and safety of the community.
Strong identification with the community does not exist everywhere. For the record, I remember a visit to Boston in the 1990s by a well-regarded police supervisor from California. He asked, rather casually, what the Boston Police “death rate” was. I suspected we weren’t using that grisly metric: how quickly the police kill the people they shoot. I did an informal survey of the main department heads. Such a thing was unknown to all. History and culture once again explain the difference between the way officers on opposite coasts conceive of the use of lethal force.
California has adopted a style of policing – emphasizing clinical detachment and technical excellence – which is actually known as “California Professionalism”. Technical excellence meant shooting when the rules say fire. A one-in-one “destruction ratio” was the clinical standard. Champions of this style of policing have used popular entertainment like television to promote it. In the 1960s and 1970s, the television shows “Dragnet” and “Adam-12” were both created by Jack Webb. Webb was a right-wing actor, producer, and ideologue who promoted a particularly authoritarian version of California professionalism. The ideology has been widely adopted in the United States. Northeastern police generally did not embrace him.
Boston Police held on to the rhythms of the march until the late 1960s despite pressure from professional associations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police to pull away, get into cars and police on patrol motorized random. Officers knew they were most effective when seen as part of the neighborhood mosaic.
Relations have certainly been strained, especially with the black community and other communities of color. The “relationship” with the LGBTQ community was once entirely repressive. So while the community-to-police connection device has suffered many dents, scratches, and a few ruptures that have required repairs over the past 50 years, it has not given way.
The stories told by local agents are clues to a second cultural base for fewer shootings. Hear almost any veteran officer tell their story. You will hear about the time when they used a sixth sense – informed by compassion and cunning – to bring about a confrontation with the preferred outcome: everyone lives, arrests are made. These stories are told in the gatehouses and they shed light on the heritage passed down from generation to generation. Police in this region pride themselves on relying on their intelligence rather than force multipliers to get the compliance they need in hairy encounters.
You can also read this in some great and non-fiction memoirs from and about the Massachusetts and Northeastern Police. In Tracy Kidder’s Book Hometown, you can read the story of a Northampton officer who feels shaken but happy about the confrontation with an armed teenager who he finished without hurting anyone. In the autobiography of Bill Bratton Turn around, he shares an anecdote about when, as a Boston sergeant, he confronted a hostage taker while unarmed. He uses his mind to secure the release of the gunman hostage. In Blue blood, former New York City Patrol Officer Edward Conlon offers a series of stories in which he used professional discretion to give people the opportunity to do what he wanted them to do.
Police services everywhere have work to do to catch up with new learning and the growing awareness of systemic racism. We have evidence to indicate that bias results in disparate treatment when the subject is a person of color. Local departments cannot review the murders of George Floyd, Daunte Wright and many others and not review their own decision making.
The more we learn, the more open Massachusetts police must be to new questions and embrace learning. If leaders can avoid being on the defensive in the face of new evidence, the Commonwealth’s policing culture can provide fertile ground for improvement.
The overwhelming majority of Commonwealth officers are right to oppose the idea of being regrouped with departments much quicker to pull the trigger. It is less a reason to leave the reform movement and more a promising base on which to build new non-racialized systems and practices.
Jim Jordan is the former Director of Strategic Planning for the Boston Police Department and Co-Principal of Public Safety Leadership. He has taught police courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.