Think Boston’s search for a police commissioner to replace Ed Davis is boring or doesn’t apply to your life? Think again. The next commissioner will oversee policies that could affect your day-to-day life in Boston, from pot to DIY shows to your interaction with (and perception of) uniformed officers.
In the policing world, Davis is a pretty big deal. During his seven-year tenure as commissioner of the Boston Police Department, violent crime dropped by 30 percent and his poise and calm leadership during the Marathon Bombings won him admiration across the country. On Sept. 23, Davis announced that he was resigning his post to take a position at Harvard and Boston politicos geared up for a search for his replacement. But ultimately, it’s the cops on the street who do the policing, so the next commissioner isn’t going to make much of a difference, right? Wrong.
The fact of the matter is the new police commissioner will have a direct impact on how you live your life in your city. To a degree unfamiliar to many people outside of the force – or maybe the military – cops take their cues on how to act, and which crimes to crack down on, from the top. Police will always aggressively pursue murders and drug dealers, but decisions about whether or not to bust people carrying a joint or break up a punk show in Allston are due to policies set by the commissioner, often in conjunction with the mayor.
“The commissioner is the boss, and a really powerful one by organizational standards,” says Peter Moksos, a criminologist and associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. “Because it is command and control, for good or for bad, [cops] will say yes and follow orders.”
You don’t have to look farther than New York to see this in practice. Throughout much of the last decade, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD commissioner Raymond Kelly decided to crack down on marijuana possession as a way of combating more serious problems in the city, like gang activity. The results were staggering: more than 50,000 arrests were made in the city for marijuana possession in 2010 alone – many of which were actually illegal under New York state law. New York’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy is another example of how tactics developed by a commissioner and a mayor can directly impact how police operate on the ground.
It’s important to point out that a commissioner can also radically improve a department for the better. Cops tend to get a lot of attention for how they handle themselves during major news events, whether they be large-scale drugs busts or natural disasters, but the vast majority of people form their opinion of a police force based on more mundane encounters with law enforcement. According to Eugene O’Donnell, a professor of police studies who also teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, most people only directly interact with police officers a handful of times in their lives and if these encounters are negative, then the relationship could be ruined.
“It is all too common that police are rougher with people than they should be,” he said. “Often, there is not enough emphasis on the delivery of day to day police work.” However, if the commissioner takes this crucial aspect of policing seriously, then he or she might make a real positive change in the department. “There is no excuse for being rude and if the police chief says this and the cops respect the chief, then that can be really powerful,” O’Donnell says. The same is true for commissioners who put a real emphasis on community policing or reducing racism within the force.
It’s very unlikely that the people of Boston will have a say in choosing the new commissioner – the search committee that found Ed Davis in 2006 consisted of just four people, and Mayor Menino conducted all of the final interviews for the position in Washington, D.C., as a way of preventing his shortlist from being leaked. And ultimately that isn’t a bad thing, because any officer worth being the new commissioner of the Boston Police Department is already doing good work somewhere, and no serious candidate would risk their current job by publicly announcing that they want to jump ship. But that doesn’t change the fact that Boston residents can make clear what sort of commissioner they want to lead their police force. Initiating the search for a new commissioner will be one of the first tasks the new mayor will have to do, and neither candidate has said specifically what sort of person they are looking for to fill Davis’ shoes. Candidates forums and mayoral debates are the perfect opportunity for members of the public to express their views on how they want the police force to be run. Regardless of which candidate wins the election, if he feels that there is real community pressure for a certain type of commissioner, then that will influence the decision he makes. Besides, if he makes the wrong choice, we can always vote him out in four years.