Janey signs bill limiting BPD's use of tear gas, rubber bullets

Boston Police emerge from the cloud of tear gas in the Boston Common to clear out protesters the night of May 31, 2020. Jesse Costa/WBUR photo

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey signed a city ordinance last week that will put limits on how police use tear gas and other crowd-control techniques. The measure, approved last month by the City Council on a 7-5 vote, will restrict the use of chemical crowd control agents and kinetic impact projectiles by law enforcement agents operating in Boston.

Specifically, the measure will require a supervisor to approve their use and give warnings in advance. The new rules will apply to individuals engaging in protests, demonstrations or gathering with more than 10 people. The proposal specifies the limits apply to tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and beanbag rounds.

The ACLU of Massachusetts, in a statement, thanked Janey for signing the ordinance and City Councillors Ricardo Arroyo and Andrea Campbell for sponsoring it.

“Tear gas and rubber bullets are dangerous, indiscriminate, and intended to cause acute pain,” said Rahsaan Hall, the ACLU’s racial justice program director. “Across the country and here in Boston, these weapons have notably been used against protesters demanding racial justice. Restricting their use is just one part of the much larger work that must continue in order to achieve public safety for us all. It’s time to concretely reduce the role, responsibilities, and power of the police.”

A similar initiative was approved by the council last year by a 8-5 vote, but was rejected by former Mayor Marty Walsh. Janey, who was city council president at the time, voted in favor of the measure.

Two councillors who voted in favor of the measure — Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu — are running for mayor in the fall election. Another councilor running for mayor — Annissa Essaibi George — voted against it. Janey is also running for mayor.

“This demilitarization ordinance is a necessary piece of our collective action to ensure transparency and accountability in our policing,” said Campbell, who re-filed the proposal with Arroyo. Campbell said she supports a full ban on tear gas and rubber bullets.

Under the ordinance, an on-scene police supervisor of the rank of deputy superintendent or higher must personally witness ongoing violence or property destruction and determine there are no reasonable methods of de-escalation that could succeed.

The same supervisor must give two separate warnings at least two minutes apart announcing the group must disperse, saying which weapon will be used and ensuring the group has a way to exit.

The ordinance will also require the Boston Police Department to preserve body camera footage when the measures are used.

Boston isn’t alone. Somerville has passed a ban on the use of tear gas and has made other chemical crowd control agents a last resort weapons and put conditions on when they can be used by police.

During the past year, at least 36 states — including Massachusetts — have signed into law measures that would change some police practices, according to a review of data from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The new laws come from at least 1,800 police reform bills filed in statehouses across the country since George Floyd’s killing, with the majority being introduced this year. The proposals include statewide bans on chokeholds, limits on no-knock warrants, and restrictions on the use of tear gas and other crowd-control techniques.

In December, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a police accountability bill that created a civilian-led commission with the power to certify officers, investigate claims of misconduct, and revoke the certification of officers for certain violations.

The law also bans the use of chokeholds, bars officers from shooting into fleeing vehicles unless doing so is necessary to prevent imminent harm and limits the use of so-called no-knock warrants.

This article was first published by WBUR 90.9FM on May 13. The Reporter and WBUR share content through a media partnership.