Case Study 2

Boston Police Department

Collaborating with community members and stakeholders to develop violence prevention and intervention initiatives.


The City of Boston, perched in the Massachusetts Bay, is comprised of almost ninety square miles. It is home to approximately 692,600 residents of which approximately 44.5% identify as white, 25.2% as Black, 19.8% as Latino or Hispanic, and 9.7% as Asian.2   Boston is served by the Boston Police Department (BPD), the US’s oldest police department.3
As of 2019, approximately 2,143 sworn officers and 779 civilian staff worked for the BPD. The department is comprised of twelve districts and nine bureaus, including the Office of the Police Commissioner, the Office of the Superintendent – in – Chief, the Bureaus of Professional Development, Intelligence & Analysis, Field Services, Administration & Technology, Investigative Services, Professional Standards, and Community Engagement.4 In the early to mid-90’s, Boston was facing a rampant gang and youth violence issue. In response, a coalition comprised law enforcement agencies as well as community members and stakeholders developed several violence prevention and intervention initiatives. Operation Homefront, for example, was formed in collaboration between the BPD’s School Police Unit, the Youth Violence Strike Force and faith-based organizations to educate parents on the warning signs of youth criminal and/or gang involvement. Home visits were conducted by BPD officers, Boston Public Schools, community-based service providers and clergy members to inform and engage with families on a weekly basis.5  Another initiative was the Ten Point Coalition, founded by a group of Black ministers and in collaboration with the BPD. The Ten Point Coalition’s prioritized community engagement in order to reduce city-wide crime and implement youth interventions.6  These two examples, among other initiatives, have been applauded for their efforts to tackle the violence issue by reaching out to the youth involved in gang-related activities. Such efforts lead to a drastic 80% homicide reduction, leading to what is referred to as the ‘Boston Miracle’.7 By the 21st Century Policing standards, the BPD had shown commitment to community policing and the use of technology and social media prior to the report’s publication. In the Task Force Final Report, the BPD was commended for its effective community communication via social media during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.8,9  More recently, the department has further expanded 21st century policing concepts through a formalized a Community Engagement Bureau, with Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston to serve as Bureau Chief.10 Of note, the BPD is currently undergoing a change in administration with Commissioner William Gross stepping down and Superintendent Dennis White taking over as 43rd Commissioner.11 Boston will have a new Mayor as well, City Council President Kim Janey is taking over as interim mayor for Marty Walsh, who is moving on as President Biden’s Secretary of Labor.12

1. Unless otherwise noted, information in this case study was derived from interviews and focus groups with Boston Police Department and City of Boston personnel, and Boston community members, conducted from November 2020 through March 2021.
7. Winship, Christopher. “End of a Miracle? Crime, Faith, and Partnership in Boston in the 1990’s.” Long march ahead: African American churches and public policy in post-Civil Rights America 171 (2002).
8. Edward F. Davis III, Alejandro A. Alves, and David Alan Sklansky, “Social Media and Police Leadership: Lessons from Boston,”New Perspectives in Policing (Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, March 2014), SocialMediaandPoliceLeadership-03-14.pdf.

Pillar 1

Building Trust & Legitimacy

Members of the BPD assert that the department has prioritized building trust and legitimacy for over ten years and believe that majority of Boston’s community indeed trusts the department. Stemming from what is referred to as the ‘Boston Miracle’, the BPD has maintained partnerships with community organization and stakeholders, including members of clergies, medical facilities, educational and higher learning, and professional sports teams. Such partnerships are helpful for reaching and maintaining open channels of communication with a variety of Boston’s community, consequently building the community’s trust. Moreover, the BPD indicated pride in that, in 2018, Boston’s Mayor Walsh and Commissioner William Gross approved the formation of the Bureau of Community Engagement.13 The Bureau’s goal is to ensure that every District of Boston has a dedicated and dependable community policing effort, focusing on building stable police-community relationships particularly in areas that did not have them before. However, BPD members strongly believe that despite their respect for the community and continuous efforts in community-based policing, the media portrays a contrasting story that often disrupts their efforts.

Pillar 2

Policy & Oversight

After George Floyd’s death, BPD held a panel to review their current policies and assess the areas for improvement. The resulting recommendations included the implementation of civilian oversight boards, the use of dashboards for internal affairs, and emphasized the need for more open discussions on diversity training and recruitment.

In accordance with the panel’s recommendation, the BPD is currently working on setting up civilian oversight boards with the aim to increase transparency and accountability. However, members expressed concerns over civilian oversight boards that include community members who hold strong anti-police sentiments, and therefore may be incentivized by their own personal agendas to participate. A second concern related to participating community members’ lack of adequate understanding of how policing works on a day-to-day basis, and how this may generate more conflicts than resolutions. Nonetheless, they agree that more transparency and open communication with the community is needed and providing explanations to the community at large for why things are done in certain ways would be helpful.

Pillar 3

Technology & Media

The BPD welcomes the use of new technology; all officers are provided with iPhones and smartphone technology, including ShotSpotter software, is available to them. Moreover, BPD uses online platforms for communicating with the community, such as social media posts and bulletins on their website are updated twice a day.

However, the BPD acknowledged that some areas, particularly on intelligence gathering remain outdated. Facial recognition and license plate reader software will no longer be used as per the community and the ACLU’s demand.
Moreover, BPD has implemented the use of body-worn cameras (BWCs) and members believe them to be helpful for protecting officers and aiding arrests, however, policies on the use of BWCs and compliance checks remain limited.14

In interviews with the NPF assessment team, BPD members mentioned their use of technology was restricted by the City Council. Specifically, a member stated that if it weren’t for the Council, they could be using social media monitoring and surveillance more effectively. Indeed, in 2016, the Council scrapped the BPD’s social media surveillance system plan. Nonetheless, according to an ACLU report, the City’s decision was guided by considerable concerns over the BPD’s prior misuse of such surveillance systems.15


Pillar 4

Community Policing & Crime Reduction

The BPD defines community policing as the liaison with community members and the City to solve ongoing problems. The BPD prides itself in its community policing principles, for example, during academy training recruits are required to do community service in order to graduate. 

The BPD’s community-based policing dates back to the early 1990s when the department, alongside community members and stakeholders, began several community engagement initiatives to tackle growing issues of gang and youth violence. Initiatives, such as the Ten Point Coalition described above, has helped BPD create a standing culture based on community policing principles. During interviews with the NPF assessment team, BPD members asserted to have strong ties with Boston’s community based on years of active engagement. However, they acknowledged the practical difficulty that COVID-19 has recently imposed on community policing. A related point of improvement for the BPD relates to their procedures for responding to mental health calls. Since 2011, the BPD works with an Emergency Services Team who provides clinicians that attend, alongside officers, calls involving persons in crisis or emotional distress.

Insights from the Community Interviews


On issues of transparency, community members felt the BPD could improve the ways in which they communicate their values to the community at large. Similarly, most community members, even ones involved with the BPD in some way, do not know what type of training the officers are receiving and agree that more transparency on this topic would be appropriate.


Some community members stated that there are officers who do engage with the community and embrace the 21st Century Policing Task Force Report recommendations, however, there are officers who do not. One member explained that, as long as there are officers committing unethical behaviors without consequences (“the blue oath”), the whole department becomes tainted. The community wants consistency and, when lacking, they want accountability.


Interestingly, a community member reflected on previous decades, where there were issues between the community and the department, but respect toward the police and what they represented was still existing. In the current climate, the community member explained that there is no respect for either side, and therefore the community-police gap keeps expanding.

Mental Health & Diversity

One positive comment related to the BPD’s efforts on tackling issues related to mental health, as community members felt the BPD does understand mental illness and the complexities of mental health more now than in recent past years. Another positive comment provided by several members was the BPD’s diversification and highlighted how important a diverse department is for community relationships.

Pillar 5

Training & Education

BPD members noted a prioritization of training within the department and advancements in certain areas of training in recent years, such as de-escalation, crisis intervention, and active shooter training. BPD also utilizes E-learning, which has been around for 5-7 years. A member mentioned liking E-learning because it is an effective learning tool that is also time sensitive (4 classes required to take every 6 months), however, he did mention the need for more civilian staff to participate. According to some BPD members, a challenge in completing trainings is that the department does not have enough personnel to police the streets. One BPD member did note that the department is working on increasing their personnel, including recruiting more women into the force.

Another BPD member highlighted the departments’ commitment to diversity recruitment. Efforts include conducting seminars in predominantly Black communities, as well as showcasing representatives from groups such as the Massachusetts Latino Police Officers Association (MLPO), the Massachusetts Italian American Officers Association (MAITAPO), and the Gay Officers Action League (GOAL). The BPD acknowledges the importance of recruiting officers who look like and represent the community, and also expressed a want for more local Bostonians to join the department. Additionally, the BPD is working on increasing the number of women in the department. In 2019, they automatically advanced all applications from women into the interview phase, and so fifty percent of all interviewees were women. However, a recruitment challenge they face is the current anti-cop sentiments among the Boston community and the country at large, and the instability that it brings to the department. It was mentioned a couple times to the NPF assessment team that even current officers are encouraging their kids to not pursue a career in law enforcement.

Regarding education, The BPD does not have a college degree requirement for recruits. A BPD member noted that while a degree requirement could be beneficial, as important leadership and communication skills are gained through education, not everyone can afford it. Nonetheless, a great incentive that BPD members have is through Massachusetts’ Police Career Pay Incentive Program, also known as the Quinn Bill, which encourages and supports officers in obtaining higher education degrees in law enforcement and criminal justice.16


Pillar 6

Officer Wellness & Safety

For years the TPD has cultivated officer safety and wellness offerings, and they have continued to grow over the last five years. Recognized nationally by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the TPD’s behavioral science unit (BSU) provides several services for the overall health and well-being of sworn and professional staff and their family members. BSU has provided counseling services, referrals, and peer support, and have organized police family events. As police suicides have increased across the country, in 2020 the TPD held trainings around mental health and suicide prevention, with a command staff member attending each class to reinforce the value leadership places on employee wellbeing.


Challenges & Next Steps for Policing 


Training and Recruiting

Boston PD members identified several challenges for policing, not necessarily specific to Boston. One challenge, according to a member, is that police have to ‘wear more hats than ever before’. This challenge is exacerbated by limited training protocols appropriate for all the varying situations BPD police are called for. Another challenge felt by several BPD members it that there is a decrease in interest in joining law enforcement has a career, less officers are recommending others to join the force and those who can retire are retiring early. This trend has been fueled by the growing hostility toward the police.

Continued Improvement

Understanding and Open Dialogue

Moving forward, the BPD seeks to practice policing with ‘a softer touch’, an approach they believe to have been working on already but acknowledge the urgency for it now more than ever. BPD members also mentioned wanting the BPD to be a reflection of the Boston community, and for their department to be representative of the communities they serve. In this spirit of continual improvement, some members noted the need for more conversations with the community in which they openly share their experiences so to encourage a more comprehensive understanding of each side’s perspectives. Members also expressed needing to enforce accountability measures in order to re-establish themselves as the ‘good guys’ within society, particularly during this tremulous time for police and community relationships.

Cover Picture Source: Boston Police Department Facebook