Boston police unions overstate case for “long guns”

Claim of FBI recommendation disputed

BOSTON POLICE UNIONS got quite a bit of attention last month when the presidents of three unions cosigned a letter to Mayor Martin Walsh and Police Commissioner William Evans demanding more patrol officers, more vehicles, body armor, and controversially, “long guns” and “ample ammunition,” in order to face what they view to be the pending threat of mass terrorism in our streets. The letter’s tone – condescending and at times vaguely threatening – raised eyebrows at City Hall and in the media, social or otherwise, while the letter’s grammar was greeted with smugness in the circles that worry about quotes and commas when we’re talking about bodies and bullets. No matter who you were, though, the letter seemed to find a way to offend.

It was easy to miss, buried within the thinly veiled associations between Black Lives Matter and terrorists and the denunciations of Barack Obama and Charlie Baker, that the letter did present an actual, sound reason for requesting “long guns” for patrol officers: Specifically, these leaders claim the FBI recommended that Boston police officers walk around their beats with assault weapons.

According to the letter, “The FBI has told us [Boston Police] that Officers must be ‘armed with and have access to Long Guns’ and ‘ample ammunition’ to stop the threat.” That the federal government’s top law enforcement agency recommended that Boston’s street cops be armed with rifles merits at least the consideration of the Mayor and Commissioner in this negotiation. Or it would, except that the FBI did not make that recommendation.

According to a spokesperson from the FBI’s Boston Division Public Affairs Office, “The FBI’s Boston Division has not made any recommendation of that kind to any local police department.” The national FBI office echoed that sentiment in an email, saying that they are unaware of “any formal guidance for law enforcement along those lines.”

While it is possible that an agent spoke unofficially about what might or might not be a good fit for the BPD’s armory, the bureau seems completely unaware of any official report or recommendation that could even marginally support the union letter’s claim. Calls for clarification to all three unions went unreturned.

It is important to remember that this letter makes no other claims as to why it would be beneficial for police to have rifles at farmers markets, road races, or just walking around the neighborhood square. They claim that “Police Officers and other public safety personnel are being murdered across the country at an alarming rate,” though, in fact, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page, violent deaths of police at the hands of others this year is just slightly over the average of the entire Obama administration, and is significantly lower than the previous 12-year average, even if you don’t count those who died on 9/11. Certainly there has been a rise in sensational police murders, though an officer represented by one of the cosigners’ unions has not been killed in the line of duty since 1994.

The letter closes by reminding the mayor and commissioner, “Let’s not forget that this City is where 911 was launched from, where the Marathon Bombing happened, etc, should we go on?”

Perhaps they should go on. Perhaps they might offer a single incident in which police did not have access to “long guns” and where the long guns might have made a difference. Certainly fancy rifles and body armor would not have stopped box cutters or pressure cookers any more effectively than any standard issue pistol could.

The letter makes a number of reasonable requests: providing water for officers during long siege operations, hiring more cops to replace those who have retired or been promoted, and even providing more and better armor are fair asks. But when negotiators issue an open letter to the city in which they begin by saying that they have been “protecting [the mayor & commissioner] (literally & figuratively), from harm,” as if there is any situation where Boston police shouldn’t protect public officials from harm, they are not negotiating in good faith, they are extorting.

Their basic decency falls more into question when they suggest that the president “fanned the flames of Police hatred” and that the governor is “politically afraid to speak” because both men have the temerity to have the simultaneous thoughts that cops shouldn’t be murdered and they also shouldn’t kill civilians for selling single cigarettes and bootleg DVDs. Their credibility, already fragile, is crushed when they negotiate with trumped up claims that they’re just asking for what the feds say they need, when the feds said no such thing.

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It is easy to disregard this letter as the gasping remains of old Boston; to believe it doesn’t represent the rank-and-file. But this is not the comment section of a website. This is a public statement with letterhead representing virtually every police officer that Boston’s citizens will ever interact with on the street.

The time has come for the BPD’s rank-and-file to hold their own leaders accountable, or to accept that these union leaders are their actual voice, articulating their actual positions, their needs, their opinions, and the tactics they think are acceptable. I find it hard to believe that Boston’s finest would say the things in this letter to their own neighbors. If they would, it’s hard to believe the people of Boston would put “long guns” in their hands willingly.

Matt Wilding works at a Boston nonprofit that promotes civic engagement.