Boston as Baghdad

The Boston Police Department (BPD) has announced its intention to militarize its patrols by introducing regular night surveillance flights in low-flying helicopters over our neighborhoods. This suggestion apparently came from a police officer who is a recently returned veteran of the Iraq occupation, eager to repeat our success in Baghdad. I have no reason to question his sincerity, but I will note the notorious difficulty of re-adapting to civilian values that is faced by some who have served bravely in battle.

The Guardian Angels have reappeared, a local ministry is notifying potential visitors of a “violence state of emergency,” and the murder rate is soaring. It is simply amazing to see the BPD willing to so publicly confirm its inability to manage the situation. Will the next police-civilian partnership be with Fox TV—national coverage of Boston as the latest SWAT City?

Branding Boston (well, certain neighborhoods) as uncontrollably dangerous may be less destructive in the long term than the indelible message to a child’s self-identity from the first night home from the delivery room. The percussive impact of a low-flying helicopter penetrates roofs and walls, reaching into the crib with the message that the people outside are uncontrollably violent, and we assume your type will become one of them.

Boston neighborhoods’ sense of place continues to drain, with quality of life a major contributing factor. It’s hard to believe that a mayor who fought so tenaciously against increased jet flights over our homes will now support night chopper patrols at a few hundred feet. Community policing advocates have fought for years to get police officers out of their cars and into our streets, developing a personal, if professional, relationship with our community. Now they are getting police out of their cars and into the air. This is not just a change in resource allocation; it is a fundamental remodeling of how the police view the public.

Some years ago, when I was immersed in community policing activities here in Boston, BPD brought in Ed Davis to speak about the future of law enforcement. For many of us, his words were a breath of fresh air; we quietly hoped that he would become the next police commissioner. At last he has arrived.

Davis steps into a situation not of his own making, but he will own it all too soon. Helicopter patrols can cost thousands per day. Youth support programs are dead or dying on the vine. How sad that his vision of policing as a partnership has faded, replaced with the post-9/11 model of the police as occupiers: distant, adversarial, secretive. Boston as Baghdad.

WS Mitchell
Jamaica Plain

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