During the continuation of its debate about whether or not to adopt the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) pledge to address systemic racism, the Select Board on Tuesday agreed that members of the town’s public safety departments — most notably the Police Department — should first be invited to share their views.
The MAPC pledge (click here to read it), among other things, calls on towns “to address racism within law enforcement in a proactive, intentional and consistent manner,” and commit to “an anti-violence approach to policing.”
Select Board chair Brendan Tedstone and member Brian Herr said adopting the pledge as it stands would offend members of the Police Department and might lead to officers looking for employment elsewhere.
“I have heard directly from members of our police force: ‘If you sign that thing, that’s BS,’ ” Herr said. “I’ve heard that. So let’s not go there.”
Added Tedstone: “There are a lot of police departments out there that are hiring. If some of our highly rated law enforcement officers take offense to the fact that we back this, that we need to tell them how to do their job when they already do it wonderfully, there’s a chance that a lot of these cops … will go somewhere else. So I don’t think the backlash is an angry Facebook post or somebody standing at the common with a sign that’s backing someone politically that you may or may not support, I think this backlash has a lot more legs than what’s perceived.”
The three Democrats on the board — Mary Jo LaFreniere, Irfan Nasrullah and Amy Ritterbusch — said they were prepared to sign the pledge, although they were willing to hear suggestions about modifications and they supported the idea of getting input from the police and other town departments.
“I hope that our law enforcement officers know that we really appreciate all the efforts and all the programs that they’re already doing, with the escalation and mental health counselors. And I believe one of our officers is taking a civil rights course to become a civil rights officer, and I think that’s fabulous,” Ritterbusch said. “I don’t think signing the pledge takes away from that, and I hope that our employees understand that.
“I am comfortable signing the pledge today, and I think it’s really important for all towns, even if they don’t have a large racism problem, to sign and show solidarity with the whole region and make it a priority for our legislators and higher-ups.”
Herr, a former Republican who now is independent, said he wanted to make it clear that he acknowledges a problem exists, but he doesn’t agree that this is the best way to address it.
“I believe that there is systemic racism in America,” he said. “I believe there is systemic racism in Massachusetts. And I believe there is systemic racism in Hopkinton. I don’t know where it is, and I don’t pretend to be an expert in understanding it or how we uncover it or how we address it. But I want to. But I don’t know if alienating some of our key employees, those that keep us safe in particular, is going to help the cause.”
Herr noted that the state legislature is working on adopting reforms that will impact all Massachusetts towns, and he said the town would be better off letting the process play out.
He acknowledged it’s an emotional issue — driven to the forefront this year following the death of a defenseless Black man, George Floyd, at the hands of Minneapolis Police and leading to nationwide protests — but he said it’s leading to a questionable decision-making process.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think jumping on a pledge because we’re all emotionally distraught in these times is the answer when it can alienate some of the very people we want to work with to protect part of this process. So I’m struggling with it,” he said. “I didn’t like some of the terminology when it first came out, and there’s still terminology in there that I think is going to alienate people, so I’m not a fan of it at this time.
“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves because of our emotions and we’re letting the process manage us, instead of us managing the process. … That’s what this feels like to me, that the situation is managing us instead of the opposite.”
Added Herr: “Managing to emotions is not good business. We run a damn good business here in Hopkinton. We’re not perfect, but we’ve run a really good business here for many, many years. That’s why we’re not broke, like 300 other towns in the state right now because of COVID. That’s why we’ve got some of the greatest schools in the state, let alone the country. There’s a lot of things that we do really well to manage our business. And to manage our employees and manage the culture in which they work is part of the management and the leadership process that we are charged with. If we just sign on to things because we’re all emotional about something and we lose good employees because of that, well, you know what, six months from now, the emotional piece is going to be waning, because that’s just what happens in life, but the employee problem we’re going to have is going to be much bigger. So that’s why managing the process instead of letting the process manage us is so important to me.”
LaFreniere countered that this is not a new issue to her, and it won’t go away anytime soon.
“I’ve been fighting this fight since the 1960s, when I sent friends to Selma, Alabama, to get hurt [in a protest march],” she said. “I was in Roxbury the night when Martin Luther King died [assassinated in Memphis]. My whole life I have been fighting this racist issue, and I want to see us continue to move forward, and move forward at a lot better pace than we have in the past.”
Added LaFreniere: “It should be emotional when talking about unfairness.”
Town manager Norman Khumalo, who hails from Zimbabwe and has a history of working for social justice, agreed that potential fallout is worth considering.
“In terms of backlash, I do share that at a personal level,” he said. “I’m the town manager. I’m an African. I’m brown, I’m Black. And clearly the issues that are raised here are at some levels very personal. And I can see by extension some members of the community thinking that the town manager is the one who is behind this. … Whenever these issues are raised, the issue of backlash does some up.”
Nasrullah empathized, although he noted the pledge was introduced by members of the community.
“I understand the concern about backlash,” he said. “And also as a brown person I understand that concern of, ‘Oh, it’s very self-serving of me.’ But I don’t believe so. When we are talking about systemic racism we are talking about how it’s going to affect everybody and how we can have a fair playing field.”
Responded Khumalo: “Part of our work here in town is to accept that there is a diversity of opinion. While I agree with you that this was brought to us by citizens, I’m not naive to think that everybody in Hopkinton agrees with this position.”
Tedstone, an independent, said the pledge has “pros and cons,” but he said it would not affect any clear changes.
“I think there’s a fine line between being proactive and stirring a pot that doesn’t need to be stirred,” he said. “As Mr. Herr said, I’m sure there’s racism in Hopkinton. Will this pledge eliminate the racism? No, it absolutely won’t. And will it have our Police Department or Fire Department or town manager or selectmen — it doesn’t afford them any more power to eradicate racism in Hopkinton.”
Tedstone said the pledge puts the Select Board in an awkward position with the police.
“I have a hard time looking Chief [Joseph] Bennett in the face and saying, ‘Listen, I’m a selectman four hours a night twice a month, I’m going to tell you how to do your job, the job that you’ve done I would venture to say perfectly over the last 30-something years,’ ” he said. “I have a hard time criticizing the work of our Police Department over an issue that has not come to light to us.”
Nasrullah countered that he views it in almost the opposite way.
“The way I read this and the reason I’m comfortable signing on to this is because it’s already being done,” he said. “I’m not telling the police chief how to do his job. I’m saying, ‘Great job. Keep going. Continue at it.’ That’s just how I see it. I think we’re doing our community a disservice to not bring the police chief and fire chief into this discussion.”
LaFreniere said it was her understanding that Bennett already has met with some of the residents who requested the town adopt the pledge. She also noted that numerous communities in the immediate area — as well as the Hopkinton School Committee — have adopted the pledge or a modified version of it.
“In this day and age, this is long overdue,” she said. “Some kind of proclamation about the racist problems in this country has been overdue since the inception of the country. I think that we are just being asked to be supportive of this and our other communities. … I think we are doing a fantastic job as a community. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge something more, something further and continue to move forward.”
The discussion was tabled to the next meting. Tedstone and Khumalo planned to discuss bringing together members of the Police Department and possibly other departments to get their input.