Responding to violence: LeadBoston Class of 2020’s virtual program day with DA Rachael Rollins and Boston police officers

June 2020 Program day_ Arrest & Prosecution

Following the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests across the country demanding justice, an unprecedented number of organizations and businesses have released public statements pledging their commitment to racial justice. In response, their stakeholders—and even their own employees—have challenged these institutions to take internal action to align their policies, practices, and procedures with their antiracist proclamations. In this critical moment, how can leaders committed to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion drive long-term and sustainable organizational change? LeadBoston, YW Boston’s year-long inclusive leadership program, is one way for organizations to equip leaders with the tools and knowledge to take concrete action.

On June 10, the LeadBoston Class of 2020 convened for their monthly virtual program day. Although it had been scheduled months in advance, the topic, Arrest & Prosecution, was prescient. Participants met with Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, as well as two Boston Police Department officers who are part of the Class of 2020, to discuss racism in criminal justice policies, the effect of George Floyd’s murder on Boston police officers, calls to defund the police, and more. Given media reports around the recent tension between DA Rollins and the BPD, it was especially valuable for LeadBoston participants to hear their first-hand perspectives on recent events. Boston’s leaders must have a nuanced understanding of the history of law enforcement and how it relates to current manifestations of collective violence if they are to create equitable workspaces and communities.

Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins shares her vision for reducing police-community violence

LeadBoston participants first heard from Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins, the chief law enforcement officer for Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop.

In her 2018 campaign, DA Rollins listed 15 types of nonviolent crimes that she planned to address through alternative means to prosecution. Her goal in implementing this approach has been to avoid a rush to arraignment and to instead utilize civil opportunities to resolve these disputes. This approach circumvents harsh punishment and places the focus on root issues that lead people to commit criminal acts in the first place. In her conversation with LeadBoston 2020, DA Rollins offered the example of trespassing on someone’s property, which could be peacefully resolved with a civil stay-away order. Then, if a further investigation should indicate that the trespasser is homeless, placement in stable housing could help prevent a repeat offense.

Limiting the number of interactions between the police and Black and brown communities also reduces the possibility of violent escalation. “Look at George Floyd,” DA Rollins said. “He’s alleged to have tendered a counterfeit $20 bill. That’s a misdemeanor. He’s not alleged to have been violent. He’s not alleged to have hurt anyone.”

DA Rollins echoed calls to reallocate funds from controlling communities to supporting them, underscoring that Boston—and the nation—must address the systemic failures revealed by COVID-19’s disparate impacts. The city of Chelsea, for example, has the Tobin Bridge running through it, has Logan Airport next to it, and is home to the largest private food distribution center in the United States. The constant influx of emissions and toxins from cars, planes, and trucks has caused alarmingly high rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. This in turn has led Chelsea to have the highest rate of positive COVID-19 cases of all towns and cities in Massachusetts. Environmental racism and its health consequences plague the city; yet, Rollins noted, the Boston Police Department receives four times as much funding as the Boston Public Health Commission.

DA Rollins spoke about how, despite the BPD’s relatively large amount of funding, its budget doesn’t focus enough on supporting police training and accountability. In fact, the BPD recently has seen significant decreases in funding for the Bureau of Professional Standards and Bureau of Professional Development. This includes the Anti-Corruption Division, Internal Affairs Division, Acadamy Division, and Firearms Training Unit, which all oversee professionalism and accountability. “We have to be better,” DA Rollins said.

Boston Police Department officers share difficulties in addressing community needs

In the second half of the virtual program day, LeadBoston participants shared their questions and concerns about policing in Boston with the cohort’s two Boston Police Department officers.

Both officers highlighted the BPD’s efforts to engage in community policing in Boston. In other words, in addition to enforcement, they see connecting with and supporting community members as part of their work.

Like DA Rollins, the officers acknowledged that community needs, to which the BPD are often called upon to respond, can extend beyond the Department’s scope. One officer used DA Rollins’s example of trespassing to illustrate this point, referencing a housing development in the city whose residents have run into homeless people sheltering in the building’s hallways. Police have arrested these homeless people for trespassing, but the hallways always refill with people.

Another officer shared how his colleagues have received threats to them and their families, including the use of social media to disseminate officers’ home addresses. He noted that there are people of color in law enforcement, such as members of the Minority Association of Law Enforcement, who are advocating for changes to make the police force itself more inclusive. As the officers implied, attacking individual officers can be short-sighted and counterproductive. It is more important to recognize, address, and dismantle the systemic racism that effects the institution as a whole.

The LeadBoston Class of 2020 reflects on speakers’ lessons and move toward action

LeadBoston participants typically break up into smaller groups after hearing from expert speakers. On June 10, however, the class stayed together to reflect as a whole group on how they could each translate their own sense of conviction and commitment to racial justice into action within their organizations. “We anticipated some challenging moments,” said Rachael Conway, YW Boston’s LeadBoston Manager. “My co-facilitator [Jeff Rogers] and I wanted to keep people together so that everyone could share and build off of and take away as many ideas as possible.” Each participant reflected on sustainable changes they could create in their own spheres of influence.

The diversity reflected among the LeadBoston Class of 2020 means the cohort is positioned to make significant change across different sectors and industries. Before signing off for the day, participants each used the Zoom chat feature to share an action they planned to take—or to continue taking—in the next 24 hours.

LeadBoston participants have already taken other concrete steps. For example:

  • One member of the Class of 2020, who works at a healthcare facility, said that her organization is going to analyze data around discrimination in security engagements with staff and visitors.
  • Two classmates in the healthcare field have since connected over how to offer patients more affordable telehealth options at their organizations.
  • One participant, who works at a university, noted that students led a Zoom meeting about student experiences, racial trauma, and police brutality. Staff and faculty likewise conducted meetings, which were eye-opening for some staff.
  • One participant is sharing LeadBoston resources with her organization so they can devise an informed action plan. 
  • Another class member is hosting an event to help family foundations embrace a commitment to social justice. 
  • One of their classmates, a writer, local representative, and college dean, has contributed to the conversation through blog posts on Medium.

Professionals committed to equity have an incredible role to play as their organizations begin investing or reinvesting in racial equity. For LeadBoston participants, the lessons they are learning and the conversations they are having are not the endgame. They are the start of long-term, sustainable change within their organizations and communities. As one participant put it, “We’re still figuring out ways to do it, but we have to start somewhere.”

If you want to be equipped to lead change in Boston, apply to join LeadBoston Class of 2021.


About LeadBoston

Become a part of YW Boston’s LeadBoston program and join a network of over 1,000 inclusive leaders in Boston. During this 10-month program, participants explore and learn how to address barriers to inclusion through facilitated dialogue, expert speakers, and peer learning. Through experiential activities, participants delve into the socioeconomic realities of Boston and explore innovative solutions to inequity.