Crystal Chandler spent a couple of hot summer days several years ago turning a sidewalk electrical box into a neighborhood landmark. Some of the bright blue paint is peeling, but cheery yellow letters still read, “Welcome To West Medford.”

“It makes people happy when they see it,” said Chandler who, like generations of other African Americans, grew up in this diverse neighborhood.

The community activism she said started in middle school has led her, at age 27, to become a veteran protest organizer. She now lives in New York City but at the urging of friends, she said, she came home to Medford to organize a rally against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death earlier this summer. She called the rally Mobilize Medford, and the name stuck. Mobilize Medford now has a Facebook group with more than 1,000 members and, said Chandler, a mission to hold police accountable.

Crystal Chandler
Crystal Chandler launched Mobilize Medford, a group seeking police accountability.
Stephanie Leydon WGBH News

“We have stories for days about Medford and policing and racist neighbors,” she said. “Not being able to file complaints against police officers, like, that’s the issue.”

But during this summer of protests, there’s another issue that another group of Medford residents see as the real problem: Police in their community being unfairly targeted.

“Black lives matter, absolutely. The police are important. We’re important, everyone’s important,” said Kelly Catallo, a local realtor who helped organize a police appreciation rally in July on the steps of Medford City Hall.

It attracted a crowd carrying "cops lives matter" signs and flags honoring fallen police.

“I think that a lot of police, we’re seeing them retire across the country,” said Catallo. “What are we going to do when the entire system breaks down? When I call police, I want police.”

A longtime Medford police officer, who asked not to be identified, pointed out that Medford police never took a break during the COVID-19 shutdowns and, like all first responders, were embraced by the community. Then George Floyd was killed and, the officer said, "it was like someone turned the lights out."

63-year-old Jimmy Gagney agrees. He was at the police appreciation rally wearing a Trump t-shirt and matching mask.

“Is there perhaps a bad element in the police? Perhaps a miniscule,” said Gagney. “But you can’t demonize all the great work that these police do in such really stressful situations in which they have to make a split second decision.”

police rally.jpg
A police appreciation rally in Medford ended with competing groups chanting "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter".
Stephanie Leydon WGBH News

In many ways Medford’s a microcosm of the country divided along familiar cultural and political fault lines over the question of police reform. But in this community there’s also a powerful force attempting to both defend and change police.

“We believe we are here to do good. We believe we are here to do right,” said Jack Buckley, Medford’s chief of police during testimony at a city council budget hearing in June about the impact of George Floyd’s death. “In one fell swoop everything that we stood for, or believed we stood for, is openly questioned.”

His department, he said, reinvented itself during the pandemic and, now, will do so again.

“At no time in history have you had so many police officers willing to work together with the community for change,” said Buckley.

Much to Crystal Chandler’s surprise, one group the chief is working with is Mobilize Medford. Chandler said groups like hers routinely send a standard list of demands to police chiefs across the country. Often, she said, they’re ignored. But in Medford, Buckley responded with a letter of his own. It’s 13 pages long.

“I didn’t expect anything of that nature,” said Chandler. “The fact that he publicly put his response on record, that was, I don’t know, it made me nod my head and, like, ‘Alright, like we can work with this.'"

The chief agreed, for instance, to make his department more transparent, but what stunned Chandler was what the chief had to say about a connection between racism and the history of policing.

“It cannot be denied,” the police chief wrote, “that our profession was grown out of an oppressive and violent practice of targeted enforcement against people of color.”

"It cannot be denied that our profession was grown out of an oppressive and violent practice of targeted enforcement against people of color."
Jack Buckley, Medford's chief of police

“When I read that letter, I read it multiple times, you know, it, I just like, broke down, crying at some point,” said Chandler. “Seeing friends and family accused when they were the victims of certain incidents, it just, brought all that back up for me.”

In his letter posted on the Medford police website, Buckley promised to make that history part of his officers’ ongoing training, something Chandler sees as essential to police reform.

“Because you need to know the basis of your career,” she said. “You need to know why it’s so important, why Black people respond to police the way they do, why Black people have these sentiments.”

The police chief told WGBH News in a phone call that he has high hopes for his newfound connection with Mobilize Medford. Of course, it’s not the only group in town working to influence what happens with policing. Ann Marie Cugno was at the police appreciation rally wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of another local group, “Medford United,” and she said the protests over policing are creating divisions that never existed before.

“And, unfortunately, because of circumstances in the world right now it seems that people have forgotten who our city and what our city is about,” said Cugno, a former school committee member. “Our city is about diversity, and we’re very proud of that.”

The city, she said, used to feel united, but even before George Floyd’s death, things were changing. Real estate in Medford has grown increasingly pricey. Newcomers have moved in. This summer the school committee voted to change the name of the Columbus School, as Cugno sees it, without much input from residents.

“The people who come in here to our city, that’s wonderful and we learn off each other,” she said, “but, unfortunately, I think there’s some circumstances where there might be some elected officials who are trying to do such a progressive move that we’ve kind of forgotten the people that have been here for a long time.”

What she’d like, she said, is to get the different factions together, figure out a way to work out their differences. As she spoke, the police appreciation rally ended and about a dozen or so young people carrying Black Lives Matter signs positioned themselves on the steps of Medford City Hall.

As they chanted “Black Lives Matter,” a guy with a bullhorn led a group chanting “All Lives Matter.” Cugno made her way over to the steps where the dueling chants were going on. She turned to people who had been at the police rally and urged them to leave.

“Everybody has their opinion,” she said.

And with that she picked up a “support our police” sign and walked away.

This article has been updated.