Willie Burnley Jr. announces campaign for City Councilor, an ordinance banning and regulating the use of tear gas and other weapons meets resistance, while a civilian oversight meeting will take place this week.
Welcome to the Somerville Wire’s March 23 Weekly Roundup—a fast look at local news published every Tuesday at somervillewire.news. Readers with Somerville-focused news tips or press releases or calendar items or letter and opinion submissions can send them to Wire staff at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call us at (617) 209-9511.
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Willie Burnley Jr. runs for city councilor-at-large
Willie Burnley Jr., a Black community organizer, former union steward, and former campaign staffer for Sens. Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, announced his plan to run for the position of city councilor-at-large, on March 22. He is the first person in his family to graduate from college and he moved to Somerville after earning his degree from Emerson College.
“I’m running for Somerville city councilor-at-large because I know that there is more that we can do to create affordability, accountability, and accessibility for our residents, more that we can do to stop the displacement and evictions of our neighbors, and more that we can do to live up to our best values of equity, inclusion, and justice,” said Burnley, in a press release.
Burnley worked as a field organizer for Warren’s campaign in 2018, according to a press release, and he also experienced being arrested as an environmentalist participating in a sit-in with the Sunrise Movement. He helped found Defund the Somerville Police Department and stood with queer youth by holding a counter rally to the “Straight Pride Parade.” He also served as Markey’s regional organizing director.
“My life has been rooted in the dual beliefs that every person can grow into the best version of themselves when given the chance and that people-powered movements can change the world,” said Burnley. “I’m running for Somerville city councilor-at-large because I believe that together we can build a safer, stronger, and more sustainable city.”
Civilian oversight of police meeting to take place
The Somerville City Council will be holding a community meeting on civilian oversight of police on March 24, at 6:30 p.m. Members of the public are welcome, and this will be the first public information session “on establishing a community process for civilian oversight of the police,” according to the City website.
“I think at the most basic level, right now, if any member of the public has a complaint, a concern, or wants to file a report about something that has happened with the police, they are forced to do that through the Police Department itself,” said Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen. “I think no government agency can be tasked with investigating and regulating itself. One of the reasons why it’s really important is just to make sure that we have an independent, outside agency that is able to respond to those concerns.”
In June 2020, the Somerville City Council and the Mayor’s Office publicly pledged to form “an independent, civilian oversight structure of the Somerville Police Department with membership representative of the community’s diversity.” The intention, according to a report, is to “increase accountability, transparency, and public trust.” To this end, the City Council has created two new staff roles, a legislative and policy analyst and a public outreach coordinator.
At the meeting on Wednesday, there will be a presentation from the legislative and policy analyst, outlining how civilian oversight has worked in various communities around the country, as well as general principles that could be applied in Somerville. The discussion will also outline how members of the public can get involved and help craft legislation. Residents will be encouraged to take an online survey, as a first step toward getting community input. In the coming months, the City Council is hoping to schedule some smaller, interactive discussion groups.
The structure of the civilian oversight system has not been determined, as the City is interested in getting feedback from the community, rather than prescribing a particular format. They are hoping to hear from the public, before committing to a specific model.
“You could imagine that our oversight board could be involved more broadly in setting priorities in public safety, in coming up with policies and recommendations for the City,” said Ewen-Campen. “But the kind of details of how this works are what we’re hoping to establish.”
Tear gas ordinance met with challenges
On March 18, at a Legislative Matters Committee meeting, Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen submitted an updated draft of an ordinance that would ban the use of tear gas and restrict other chemical crowd agents and kinetic impact projectiles. The use of tear gas by the Somerville Police Department or other law enforcement officers would be prohibited, while chemical crowd control agents and kinetic impact projectiles would only be used as a last resort or under specific exceptions and exemptions.
One of the regulations proposed is that only someone in the position of “captain” or higher may authorize the use of the aforementioned devices, a change in language that was added to set “a very high bar” for who could make this decision. The ordinance also established limitations around the use of pepper spray. It also included the removal of terms that would allow an individual harmed by a violation of the ordinance to seek damages. While Ewen-Campen thought this right was “incredibly important and basic,” after consulting with the administration, he said that he believed it would be unenforceable. The draft would additionally make it difficult for an officer to seek qualified immunity, if he or she violated the ordinance.
Assistant City Solicitor Shannon Phillips expressed concerns with language in the ordinance, stating that banning and restricting weaponry, if challenged, “could be found in the province of the Chief of Police,” who decides how to run his department and train his officers. She also explained that Somerville has mandatory indemnification, which means “a City must indemnify a public employee [a police officer]… from any personal loss or expense, including legal fees arising out of any claim involving their act or omission within the scope of their official duties.”
“If you are creating enforcement provisions you’re essentially doing so against the City,” said Phillips. “The City would be the one on the hook for paying these, despite an officer maybe not following the ordinance or not administering it well, despite the City’s best efforts in trying to train them on it.”
Somerville Chief of Police Charles Femino added that his main concern is that the ordinance could cause “not only confusion on an officer’s part– it could lead to injury–but may cause the person involved in the incident’s behavior to escalate,” which could result in the officer needing to proceed to a next level of force. In terms of the limitations on the use of pepper spray, he added that there are circumstances or unpredictable situations that are not covered by the ordinance. When asked for comment, the Law Department of the City of Somerville declined.
Chair Lance Davis spoke to the importance of having legislation that regulates the use of pepper spray, saying that police training in the past has been unsuccessful.
“There’s no shortage of examples where that training appears to have failed, both within Somerville ranks and in our neighboring cities,” said Davis. “In thinking about an ordinance that regulated the use of pepper spray, certainly the video of officers walking into peaceful crowds… immediately comes to mind.”
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.