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Boston Police Sue City Officials Over 2021 Ordinance

On July 18, the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society unions sued Boston’s city council, claiming illegal intervention in the city’s law enforcement through a 2021 ordinance. The law, signed by former mayor Kim Janey, worked to limit police use of non-lethal measures, especially pepper spray and rubber bullets. Citing precedent and the ever-so-gray doctrine of separation of powers, the suit highlights the struggle for reform of a stubborn and unwilling police department.

In a joint statement, the two unions claim that the council’s interference “will have tragic results with possible loss of life” and that “eliminating [their] Officers’ ability to use non-lethal force, City Council themselves are forcing escalation of incidents.” According to this statement, an inability to use forceful modes of de-escalation like pepper spray immediately requires the use of an even more violent measure. Instead of focusing on the overall diminishing of any sort of force used by police, these officers jumped to deadly conclusions.

The original ordinance, supported by Boston’s past three mayors, aimed to reform the city’s police department through a progressive halt to forceful tactics. An increase in accountability and limitations is a step in the right direction toward police reform, yet the department itself feels that this is an overreaching measure that “directly affects and constrains any sworn officer responding to a radio call or on an assignment.” 

The unions’ suit relies heavily on precedent, citing a 1974 case in which Boston’s courts ruled against a city council measure that required each patrol car to be equipped with a shotgun. That ordinance was claimed as a violation of Boston’s Police Commissioner’s Statute, which states that “the commissioner shall have cognizance and control of the government, administration, disposition and discipline of the department, and of the police force of the department and shall make all needful rules and regulations for the efficiency of said police.” 

Stare decisis, a principle that favors ruling for the precedent, is a policy seemingly irrelevant in today’s political world, which makes it all the more difficult to rely upon in this case. Nevertheless, Boston Police are determined in this search for a reassumption of power. They, like every other police department, thrive on the basis of forceful tactics and arrests for petty crimes. Boston’s ordinance aims at cracking down on that in an attempt to lessen the discriminatory acts of a department marked by a stringent history of brutality, but the department is pushing back to maintain control over police regulations. 

While current mayor, Michelle Wu, and her administration declined to comment for local and national media outlets, former mayor Janey’s words put it bluntly. “Indiscriminate use of these devices is dangerous and unacceptable… this ordinance [is] for the protection of Boston residents.”

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