Is Boston Police’s soft approach the answer to the Garda’s problems?

Former commissioner of Boston Police emphasises need to humanise the force

Former Boston Police commissioner Bill Evans: “A lot of police organisations say they have community policing, but they only have it in name. They rarely walk the walk.” Photograph: Tom Honan

From an Irish-American family, William Evans was raised in south Boston. One of six brothers, Evans lost his mother while an infant. Aged 9 years, his brother Joe (11) was killed in a hit and run which was never solved. And when he was 14 years old his truck driver father died from a heart attack.

He says the local community in south Boston – “a real poor neighbourhood” – rallied around and helped finish the raising of the Evans boys.

And it is to this theme, of community, that Evans returns to again and again when discussing his just-ended term as commissioner of the Boston Police Department.

He spoke to The Irish Times this week on a trip to Dublin organised by the US embassy and in the wake of the publication of an explosive report into the Garda by the Disclosures Tribunal.


Tribunal chairman Mr Justice Peter Charleton accused the Garda for being “invisible” on the streets and isolated in Garda stations. Last month the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland said the Garda needed to get back to basics and put community policing at the heart of what it does.

The commission, headed by another former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole, said no value was placed by the Garda in community policing, saying this had to change.


When Evans speaks of his career the similarities between policing in Boston and the challenges now facing the Garda are uncanny.

Clearly, O’Toole’s group – and to an extent Mr Justice Charleton – has prescribed a programme of reform for the Garda that, if executed, would make the Irish police force very much like Boston’s. It would certainly copy its ethos.

It should be said, however, that Boston has problems – very serious ones – that Ireland does not. In 2013, for example, the Boston marathon was bombed by home-grown Islamist extremists. Three people died, 16 lost limbs and the threat of terrorism is still real in Boston.

And while gun crime is declining in Boston, Ireland does not have the same armed society as the United States; where civilians, police officers and security personnel all carry weapons.

The annual homicide rate regularly climbs over 50 in the area covered by the Boston Police Department; with about 700,000 residents. The Republic’s homicide rate has averaged 90 killings annually for the last five years, within a population of 4.7 million.

And while Evans answers questions in relation to Boston only, never commenting on the Garda or advising what they should do, his comments are especially interesting in a time when police reform is such a big issue in Ireland.

Evans says that in Boston the community is king. And everything the police force there does is designed to stay close to, and win the trust and respect of, communities.

And Evans believes the fear of crime needed to be tackled just as much as crime itself. In cases of violent crime including gun homicides, he said, it should be made very clear to the public if the victim was specifically targeted.

This, he said, explained to people that some violent crimes, while unacceptable, were happening for very specific reasons that did not involve, or would not impact on, the public.

“This shouldn’t make people feel fearful in their neighbourhoods,” he says of attacks targeted against specific victims and with a clear motive. “Every day the messages we send out are to tone down people’s fear,” he said of the Boston Police.

This was done via messaging – including press releases and social media – and also via interviews with the print and broadcast media.

When he was commissioner, Evans went to the scene of the almost every homicide. And while there he took advantage of the media interest to speak out and calm the fear of crime that resulted from the killings.

Gun violence

The Boston Police Department – some 2,300 officers to police an area with a population of 700,000 – focused on being a “guardian” service rather than a “warrior” police department or “occupying force”.

While all police officers are armed in Boston, the department did not react to issues such as gun violence by sending in heavily armed teams of police in tactical uniforms. And when dealing with potential volatile crowds or other public order issues, police officers wearing helmets and using shields and sticks were only deployed as a last resort.

“If you show that, it looks like you’ve come for a fight,” Evans said.

Even in situations where officers kitted out for public order, or riot, duties; the officers’ used their sticks, of batons, to push at crowds rather than strike them.

He believes that once a baton is used as a weapon the dynamic of a situation is changed and control is lost.

He says that when many parts of the US were beset with racial tension – and shootings by the police and also at the police – none of that trouble came to Boston.

And he believes the effort put in to community policing down the years to ensure the personnel attached to Boston Police Department’s 11 precincts know and understand the people they serve ensured those communities never turned on the police.

He defines community policing as “police officers, the whole department, interacting with the public every day so they respect you and trust you”.

The most significant policing tool that “Boston’s finest” bring into troubled neighbourhoods where they need to work hardest is an ice-cream van; which they purchased for $70,000 (€61,000). Its livery is a mix of Boston Police Department and a regular ice-cream van.

Peace walks

They give out free ice-creams and at the same time they conduct “peace walks” and “flashlight walks”; handing out torches to the kids and walking the streets as one big group of police officers and residents.

The impact is two-fold; demonstrating that the public owns the streets and can walk them even late at night and also showing the public the police are with them.

The police also run “coffee with a cop”, during which local coffee shops are taken over by the police and local people can come and mingle with them. “Shop with a cop” involves hundreds of kids being paired with individual police officers at a local Target store where the officers buy the kids what they want for Christmas.

Sports programmes are also run by local officers across communities for at-risk young people, with the Boston police providing the money for the programmes, coaching the kids and sometimes playing with them.

“People love meeting their police officers. It’s all about humanising the police,” Evans says of why community policing is the Boston Police Department’s main activity.

“A lot of police organisations say they have community policing, but they only have it in name. They rarely walk the walk.”