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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Somerville police staffing study sparks controversy over speed of reform

A Somerville police cruiser is pictured responding to a call in Teele Square on March 1.

Local activists and some elected officials have criticized a recent study of Somerville Police Department’s staffing. The City of Somerville announced on March 8 that its Racial and Social Justice Department had contracted a consulting firm to conduct a study on the Somerville Police Department’s staffing procedures, prompting frustration over the speed of police reform in Somerville.

The RSJ Department contracted with Raftelis Financial Consultants, Inc. in order to analyze the SPD’s operations and facilitate Somerville’s goal of reimagining policing, according to a March 8 statement issued by the city.

Raftelis has been tasked with measuring the workload of the SPD, studying staffing, operations, and organization, and analyzing that data,” the City of Somerville wrote in the statement. “Once completed, this analysis will help inform both the Administration as well as community members who engage in reimagining efforts on the City’s public safety resources and needs.

Denise Molina Capers, the director of racial and social justice for the City of Somerville, wrote in an email to the Daily that the RSJ Department hopes to “Gain a comprehensive understanding of SPD … Analyze operations management and organization… [and] Analyze staffing and workload.

The SPD staffing study is expected to take approximately two to four months to complete, worrying some residents and city councilors that the city is moving too slowly toward the goal of reimagining policing.

Somerville City Councilor At-Large Willie Burnley Jr. told the Daily that he thinks the city has fallen behind on many of the promises it made during the nationwide reckoning over racial justice in 2020.

At the time, there was a commitment from the City of Somerville, from [Mayor Joseph Curtatone], that we would begin this process of ‘reimagining policing,’” Burnley Jr. said. “[W]e were having these conversations in the summer of 2020. We’re in the spring of 2022, and we are only just starting to do the work. And to me, that is really disappointing.

Molina Capers said that the City is trying to be intentional about the staffing study being a community-driven process.

“Police and public safety reform is not linear and has its complexities,” Molina Capers wrote. “Very often, similar efforts have occurred in a vacuum, where voices of the most impacted and vulnerable are not sought out, not heard, and not considered when developing evaluation processes and recommendations.”

Burnley Jr. also takes issue with the phrase “reimagining policing,” saying it mischaracterizes calls from activists to defund the police.

I find the phrase ‘reimagining policing’ to be a watered-down and co-opted phrase that was inserted by folks who have ideological concerns about what were the true demands of the 2020 reckoning on racial justice and police violence, which were about defunding the police, about reallocating funding to social services and alternative crisis response,” Burnley Jr. said.

Burnley Jr. believes the RSJ Department’s staffing study is a distraction in place of what he sees as more tangible reforms.

It is quite concerning how the [original] demands … have been distorted to essentially say … ‘Let’s do a staffing study on the police,’ even though Somerville has done two in the last 20 years, ‘And let’s have the staffing study be based primarily upon what the police believe the staffing should be,’ Burnley Jr. said. “How did we go from ‘Defund the police’ to ‘The police should determine how the police change?’ To me, it’s bizarre and strange and defeatist.

Somerville Ward 5 City Councilor Beatriz Gómez Mouakad declined to comment.

Burnley Jr. believes that the entire conversation surrounding police reform in Somerville needs to be dramatically reframed.

We need to be having a broader outreach when we’re determining how to restructure our government in order to meet our goals around this and to actually live up to our values,Burnley Jr. said. “Currently, I do not believe we’re having that conversation as a city.