From the classroom to the dorm room, there has been much talk among Criminal Justice students and college students in general about the thin blue line now walked by police officers as they patrol urban neighborhoods in the wake of violent unrest in places like Ferguson, Missouri and New York City after two unarmed African-American men were killed during altercations with officers in those cities. The stories dominated the headlines in 2014 and intensified the underlying mistrust between residents of the inner city and those men and women sworn to protect them.
Photo courtesy of Boston Police Department
The divide was almost widened again here in Boston last week. During a routine traffic stop Boston patrolman John Moynihan was shot in the face. Luckily, five other Boston police officers were on the scene and shot and killed the suspect before he was able to cause further harm. As the critically wounded officer Moynihan was rushed by ambulance to Boston Medical Center for life saving surgery, an angry crowd began to gather at the scene demanding answers. In an attempt to explain and diffuse the situation, Boston Police Superintendent-in-Chief William Gross, himself an African-American, addressed the crowd.
“Officers did a motor vehicle stop,” Gross said. “As the officer is taking him out the car, he shot the officer in the face, and the officers returned fire. That was it, short and sweet.”
A voice in the crowd responded. “You all don’t have no protocol, any other way? You got to shoot somebody?”
“Did you hear the part where he shot the officer in the face?” Gross replied.
The crowd also did not know at the time that the suspect Angelo West had a violent history that included firing a weapon during a struggle with police in 2001. But the truth was lost to the heat of the moment.
“Go back to your pigs,” the voice in the crowd responded. “No more diplomacy... no more peace talks, it’s war right now. No more peace talks. You know what it is now.”
Superintendent-in-Chief Gross showed proper restraint in the face of swirling insults by allowing the angry voices to be heard. Tensions have escalated in the past in other cities in part because police quickly put the hammer down on protesters, forcing crowds to disperse and allowing their outrage to fester.
But the young agitator was right. It is a war right now - a war to win the hearts and minds of neighborhood residents who often to jump to the worst possible conclusion when police are involved in a violent altercation in their community.
This incident could have spiraled out of control quickly had Boston police not handled the situation the right way.
Instead of constructing obstacles to the truth, high ranking officers shared information and actual surveillance video of the shooting with community leaders to cut off any possible lines of miscommunication and to dispel rumors and quell anger over the use of deadly force in this case.
The head of the local chapter of the NAACP told WBUR radio that it was the first time in his four year tenure that he had been invited to a briefing with Boston police on a shooting investigation with video.
Community leaders say they respect the transparency but that it has to be a two way street. They will also expect BPD to share video of any controversial situation that doesn't necessarily paint their officers in a positive light.
Hopefully that test will not be needed anytime soon.
Do you think the BPD did the right thing? Let us know in the comments below.