Few police abuse cases find way to civilian review

Yawu Miller | 2/26/2014, 11:06 a.m.
Seven years after the city established the Civilian Ombudsman Oversight Panel to review allegations of police abuse, the board remains ...

Police officers take a suspect into custody on Washington Street on a recent evening.

Police officers take a suspect into custody on Washington Street on a recent evening.

Seven years after the city established a civilian board to review allegations of police abuse, the board remains largely powerless, ineffective and little-known according to attorneys and community activists contacted by the Banner.

The three-person Civilian Ombudsman Oversight Panel reviews a small fraction of the civilian complaints referred to the Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, often taking more than a year to review cases and upholding the majority of the IAD’s findings over the last two years, according to information on the board’s website.

“The bottom line is it’s three people reviewing a small number of complaints each year and it takes a long time for anyone to get a response,” says Miriam Mack, a legal fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts.

Phone messages left for COOP members and at the phone number listed for the panel on its website were not returned by the Banner’s press deadline.

Critics of the department’s civilian complaint process say COOP has little capacity to investigate cases.

“There should be a board that has the ability to vet cases and has teeth to it,” said District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson. “The board should have some ability to investigate and ask questions.

Citizen complaints are referred to the current three-person oversight panel when IAD investigators do not sustain a complainant’s charges. Complainants have 14 days after the IAD decision to appeal. COOP members have the power to review notes and transcripts from the IAD investigations, but do not interview police officers or the complainants.

Between 2008 and 2011, the years for which COOP provides data on its website, only 31 complainants have appealed to the board. IAD fielded 900 citizen complaints of police misconduct in that same period.

Of those citizen-initiated complaints, COOP reported on 20 in its 2011 report, the most recent posted online. Of the 20 IAD investigations the panel reviewed four were found to be unfair and sent back to IAD for further review. The COOP web page provides no information on any action IAD may have taken on those four cases.

Civil rights advocates who called for the creation of a civilian review board prior to the establishment of the COOP argued that the board could serve as a balance to IAD investigations, which many perceive as biased in favor of police officers. Current statistics on the COOP website suggest that bias may still exist.

In instances where department brass issued IAD complaints against officers in 2010, 84 percent of the complaints were sustained, according to COOP data. But for civilian-initiated complaints that year, 13 percent were sustained, 60 percent were not sustained and 23 percent were still pending at the end of the year.

Persuading the administration of former Mayor Thomas Menino to accept a civilian review board was a long process.

In the wake of widespread and documented physical and verbal police abuse of black males during the 1989 Charles Stuart Case, the city created a commission headed by attorney James St. Clair to review police practices. The 1992 St. Clair Commission report concluded that “Physical abuse of citizens by a police officer is among the most serious violations of the public trust possible,” and called for the creation of a civilian review board to process complaints.