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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, February 29, 2024

Somerville, Medford declare racism a public health crisis, commit to police reform

The mayors of Medford and Somerville have declared racism a public health emergency in response to protests nationwide over the deaths of George Floyd and other people of color killed by police.   

Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn said her administration will undertake “systematic change” to address racism, according to apress release that accompanied the declaration signed on June 15.

The City of Medford is committed to creating and instituting changes in our policies and practices across our municipal departments and within our school system to address institutional racism and the impacts of racism on the social determinants of health, and this resolution is just one of our first steps,” she wrote.

Lungo-Koehn's declaration followed a similarresolution to declare systemic racism a health emergency that passed 4–3 by the Medford City Council on June 9

In Somerville, Mayor Joe Curtatonedeclared systemic racism a public safety and health emergency, a status also designated to the coronavirus pandemic in the city. A 10-point police reform agenda was outlined in apress release, alongside the declaration.  

Curtatone intends to create a civilian oversight structure for the Somerville Police Department and eliminate the Somerville Police Superior Officers Association's (SPSOA) responsibility of investigating officer misconduct, according to the press release. The SPSOA is one of two police unions. 

Curtatone, instead, called on the state to create a special prosecutor to investigate police misconduct.

He also urged the Somerville City Council to pass a resolution expressing its support for body cameras. The city has beencontending with the Somerville Police Employees Association (SPEA), the union representing the department’s rank and file, over the inclusion of body cameras in their collective bargaining agreement since 2015.

“If we’re serious about advancing compassionate and unbiased policing, everything has to be on the table,” Curtatone said.

Zane Crute, president of the Mystic Valley Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that it is necessary to view racism as a threat to the health of Black people and applauded the declarations.

“This is one of the things that has plagued our society for hundreds of years,” he said in an interview with the Daily. “The fact that [the mayors are]making such a strong commitment to reform policing as an institution … is definitely appreciated.

Crute also recognized that it is important for local leaders to translate their words into actions.

Somerville Chief of Police David Fallon, who was appointed by the mayor and not a union member, is also backing the reforms.

“These steps will help us continue on that path so that we can not only fairly and safely protect and serve but so that we can also continue to strive to earn and maintain community trust daily in our every action,” he said in the press release. 

The SPEA and the president of the SPSOA did not return a request for comment.

Will Mbah, a Somerville city councilmember and the body’s only Black member, said he was pleased that the mayor had reaffirmed his commitment to reform, but stressed the importance of actions over words.

“We need to take those executive orders and turn them into policy,” he said in an interview with the Daily.

Mbah, along with councilors J.T. Scott and Lance Davis, is drafting an ordinance to establish a civilian police commission and an independent review agency that will be ready for a vote in the coming months.

Curtatone, however, proposed to include funding to hire a consultant to study the idea of a civilian review board. 

Mbah and his colleagues explained that their ordinance is already far past that stage and has broad community buy-in.

“We need somebody who knows the neighborhoods, we don’t need somebody from out of town to organize us and get a recommendation for us,” Mbah said.

He would like to see police funding channeled to social services, echoing calls from protesters across the nation for localities to reevaluate the role of law enforcement.

“[For] any nonviolent act you should not be sending a cop. Send people who are trained,” he said.

Scott, the chair of the city council’s finance committee, panned the mayor’s announcement.

“The mayor is attempting to govern by press release,” he said in an interview with the Daily.

Scott explained that the city’s legislative branch does not have extensive authority to limit police expenditure.

He said that councilmembers can either completely reject the mayor’s budget changes that may result from his declaration or cut certain sections of departmental budgets. Still, the mayor would retain wide latitude to move funds within a department after the budget is passed, according to Scott.

Scott also critiqued the administration’s campaign for body cameras and its proposal to remove itself from the Massachusetts Civil Service hiring system. He added that cameras have not prevented officers from shooting unarmed Black people and that the Civil Service system prevents favoritism in police hiring.

Scott ultimately emphasized the importance of understanding the needs of the community. 

"We need to listen to people of color here in Somerville and follow their lead," he said.