Walsh to revise police board; Says citizen oversight body has little impact

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marty walsh
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh

By Jan Ransom | GLOBE STAFF APRIL 06, 2015

Mayor Martin J. Walsh is vowing to overhaul the Boston Police Department’s citizen oversight panel in the aftermath of high-profile police shootings in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, and New York City, and amid continuing concern about the board’s effectiveness.

The panel, which Walsh’s predecessor established in 2007, has failed to have much of an impact, according to even some of its original members, because of the limited power it was granted and its lack of independence from the Police Department. Now, Walsh said, everything is on the table.

“It’ll be a different board,” said Walsh, who recently appointed two new members to the three-member panel, officially known as the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, or CO-OP. “You can’t have a board that doesn’t have a function. It doesn’t help the city and it doesn’t help the Police Department. People need to know there is a place they can go.”

One of those appointees, J. Larry Mayes, a longtime member of the Menino administration, said the board needs to have an operating budget, an office outside of police headquarters, and a 90-day turnaround for appeals.

He would also like city and police officials to create a complaint mediation program, which was called for under the executive order that established the panel but was never officially set up. That program is designed to quickly address certain citizen complaints, such as those related to discourteous treatment.

“The CO-OP has struggled to be a full functioning panel [with] the necessary tools and structure it needs to be sustainable,” said Mayes, who is also the vice president of programs for Catholic Charities.

As originally established by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the board was supposed to build trust and confidence in the Boston Police Department and enhance police-community relations.

Under its executive order, the panel can review 10 percent of alleged misconduct cases that are unfounded, exonerated, or unsubstantiated to determine whether the cases were fairly and thoroughly investigated; the cases to be reviewed are randomly selected by the department.

Citizens can also appeal to the board if they disagree with the department’s findings about a misconduct complaint. But the panel cannot interview witnesses or conduct its own investigation and it does not have subpoena power.

Police Commissioner William B. Evans said he, too, was open to suggestions for improving the board, which now also includes Judge Regina Quinlan and Natashia Tidwell, an associate professor at New England Law, Boston, who was reappointed after serving a three-year term.

“We’re all under the gun to be transparent,” said Evans, who will meet with the board this month. “If they think things can be done better, I’m all for it.”

Mayes says the CO-OP should have a manager and assistant — independent of the Police Department — and perhaps staffed with students from some of the city’s prestigious law schools.

The panel should also be able to examine a larger pool of cases, he said, adding, “The more cases we can review, the more we can get a handle on the police-community relationship. Events in Ferguson, as well as New York and around the country are a wake-up call for all of us to redouble our efforts.”

Tidwell, the veteran member, said the board has been successful at what it was established to do, but she acknowledges that its structure and mandate has limitations.

Over the years, the Police Department has accepted many of the panel’s recommendations including incorporating in its training the First Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2011 decision in Gilk v. Cunniffe, to ensure that officers respond appropriately to citizen use of cellphone cameras and other devices to record officers in public. The department also tweaked its interviewing techniques so that investigators are not asking officers leading questions.

And in the CO-OP’s 2013 report released last year, which reviewed cases from 2012 and years prior, 21 of the 31 cases referred to the board took more than a year for Internal Affairs to complete; slightly less than half took more than two years.

“It’s a big customer service type of thing,” said Tidwell. “It can’t take two years for [complainants] to get a result.”

The CO-OP encouraged Internal Affairs to keep complainants informed periodically even if delays cannot be immediately addressed — something the department has begun to do, the report states.

“In terms of looking at internal affairs cases, how cases are treated, what biases occur and all the things that go into whether an investigation is fair — that is what the CO-OP has been effective at,” said Tidwell. “This is not a place where someone who has been aggrieved by the Police Department can go and have their complaint heard. There’s a clamor for that nationwide, but that’s not what the CO-OP is.”

For years, Menino held off creating a review board, pointing to union opposition, lawsuits, and excessive oversight of the police, despite demands by activists who called for boards similar to those in other cities that monitor their police departments.

His position changed following the 2004 death of Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove who was killed on Oct. 21 by an officer who fired a pepper-pellet gun into a crowd celebrating the Red Sox win over the New York Yankees, a game that sent them to the World Series.

Advocacy groups and the police department joined together to commission a report done by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice in 2005 to examine which type of oversight board might work best for Boston. But the CO-OP was not what community leaders envisioned.

“We’re disappointed,” said Jorge Martinez, executive director of Project RIGHT, a Grove Hall antiviolence organization. “We expected much more than what was done.”

Local activists were not the only ones feeling frustrated.

One of the three original CO-OP board members, Ruth Atkins-Suber, said it was difficult for the group to do its job without having the power to subpoena and conduct its own investigations.

“We didn’t have the freedom to run a successful review board,” said Atkins-Suber, who led the board’s community outreach initiatives. “We were shielded from complainants. We never ever got the information we thought was out there.”

Budget limitations brought community-outreach efforts to a halt. Panelists are paid $100 an hour, but their pay cannot exceed $50,000 annually.

“We certainly felt that we were limited in what we could do,” said David Hall, the panel’s original chairman, who left in 2009 to be president of the University of the Virgin Islands. “We knew at the time the model that was adopted in Boston was on the minimal side compared to in some cities.”

Some cities have strong police oversight boards.

Chicago, for instance has the Independent Police Review Authority, which has the power to investigate allegations of misconduct and recommend disciplinary actions.

Should the police commissioner disagree with the authority’s decision, the commissioner would have to provide sufficient reasons and the matter would go to the Police Board.

Denver has the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian oversight agency that monitors and participates in investigations of the city’s police and sheriff departments. The board is allowed to make policy and disciplinary recommendations.

“The public deserves to have a police department that is accountable,” said City Councilor Charles C. Yancey, who recently introduced legislation to establish a Boston Civilian Review Board.

Policing experts agreed.

“If a city decides to have a civilian complaint review board it should give the board real power,” said Michael Avery, professor emeritus at Suffolk University Law School. “It should be able to interview witnesses, subpoena witnesses and interview police officers; otherwise it’s just window dressing.”