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Few police abuse cases find way to civilian review

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Few police abuse cases find way to civilian review

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.

While other key reforms recommended by the St. Clair Commission were implemented soon after the release of the report, the civilian oversight panel was put on the back burner for the next 12 years. The high-profile beating of a black undercover officer and string of police shootings of unarmed black suspects in the ‘90s sparked repeated calls for a civilian review board but yielded no action from the city.

Following the 2005 accidental death of Emerson College Junior Victoria Snelgrove, felled by a projectile fired from a pepper pellet gun which struck her in the head, former Mayor Thomas Menino created the COOP, charged with reviewing cases of complainants not satisfied with the outcomes of cases dismissed by the department’s Internal Affairs Division. The panel began its work in 2007.

In 2009, Harvard University researchers issued a scathing report of the review panel, characterizing its work as ineffective. At the time of the Harvard report, only 10 of the 116 people who brought cases to IAD had sought to have the COOP review their cases. The Harvard researchers interviewed 27 citizen complainants who did not appeal to the review panel and found that 26 of them did not know the panel existed.

Boston attorney Howard Friedman, who represents clients in police misconduct cases, says police procedures have improved markedly since the late ‘80s when the department had no standard forms or procedures for taking civilian complaints.

But he says the IAD process still seems biased against the complainants.

Friedman says IAD inspectors will often ask leading questions, that the complaint process is lengthy and complainants are not given status updates on their complaints.

One of his clients, who was issued a parking ticket after she stopped her car to observe what she thought was an instance of officers using excessive force, filed a complaint against the officer who wrote the ticket on April 1, 2013.

“We still haven’t received a response,” Friedman said.

The lack of communication suggests that civilian review panel may have limited influence on police procedures. In its 2012 report, the COOP members recommended that police issue updates to complainants at 90-day intervals.

While the COOP members said IAD investigators are now refraining from “overuse of leading questions” in their investigations, Friedman says he often observes that behavior during questioning.

“What I’ve seen is that they’ll ask police officers leading questions like, ‘so you had to use force to restrain him,’” he said. “There’s still a difference between the way a complainant is treated and the way officers are treated.”