Boston Police Commissioner William Evans spoke on Monday at the Cadigan Alumni Center about current issues facing police officers and his perspective on, as the event was titled, “Policing in Difficult Times.”
Speaking in a thick Boston accent to an audience that included Boston College alumni, District Attorneys, employees of the FBI and other general members of the public, Evans stressed his commitment to the community as he reviewed challenges he had encountered during his 35 years as a Boston police officer and almost two years as Commissioner.
He touched upon his involvement with policing the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011 and the chase for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects in 2013 before moving on to the strained relations between the black community and law enforcement that have surged to the public spotlight.
“If you look around the country, there’s quite a bit of unrest between the police and the community,” said Evans. “We’ve seen it in Ferguson, South Carolina. You’ve seen it in New York, Minnesota … And obviously, what recently happened in Chicago is, I think, troubling to all of us,” he continued, referring to the recent release of a video showing the fatal shooting of a civilian. Despite the incident occurring in 2014, the officer in question was only arrested on murder charges when, after fighting attempts by the community to view the footage for a year, the department made the video public.
“It’s almost an insult to your intelligence when they decide to arrest the officer the day the video comes out,” said Evans. “That poor kid got assassinated, as far as I’m concerned… I’m not going to back law enforcement when they’re wrong.”
“I’m a firm believer in being as transparent as possible,” he explained, citing several examples in which he invited leaders of the community (such as NAACP members) to view footage of police encounters that resulted in civilian death in order to prove that the use of force was necessary. “And that’s how I think policing has to be done now.” He continued, “We have to always be up front. I tell the guys, ‘If you mess up, you mess up.’”
Evans expressed his belief that body cameras worn by officers have now become a necessity in order to ensure accountability, despite his initial hesitations regarding cost. The police department is currently working with vendors and a social justice task force to develop a policy that is acceptable to the community and the office, and hopes to have a pilot program established by May.
The commissioner also discussed his relationship with the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge, the executive director of which Evans has been working with to both identify those susceptible to radicalization and to assure Boston Muslims that the police department is there for them and is committed to protecting them from any potential anti-Islam retaliation, especially after the San Bernardino shooting last week.
That shooting has flared up the long-controversial gun control debate throughout the country. “The tougher gun laws we have, the better,” Evans asserted. “When I’ve spoken up, the NRA is all over my case.” He has worked on getting as many guns as possible off the street, and has worked hard on lowering the amount of firearms in the city. Evans expressed his belief that arming officers with patrol rifles is unnecessary, as a 9mm pistol can effectively neutralize a suspect initially. His work seems to be showing positive results, as the number of shootings in Boston has fallen 9% overall.
What he is most proud of is the decrease in arrests throughout his tenure. He has focused on diverting young offenders out of the criminal justice system and helping them to connect with social workers and clergy members. “I tell my officers, there’s no such thing as a bad kid out there,” said the commissioner. “All there is are kids like me when I was little who need the right person to step into their life and give them the chance that I had.”
Evans has worked hard to show strong ties between the police and the community they serve, participating in peace walks and sending out ice cream trucks in communities affected by violence. Throughout his speech, he reiterated his dedication to maintaining a strong relationship with Boston civilians despite ongoing tension with law enforcement across the country.
“It all comes down to the relationships, to the hard work we do,” he said. “It’s not the old mentality of the police against the community. We want them to come out and be part of the community.”