Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Crime Fighters and Punishment, or Not

We want cops around when we want them around -- when the burglars are trying to break in the back door. We don't want them around at other times -- when we drift through a stop sign.

So, we cut our police officers slack, a lot of slack, sometimes too much. Judges and juries tend to believe their testimony above even multiple witnesses. After all, these men and women are there to protect each of us. They are literally targets for the bad guys and some die every year on duty.

So, why would Boston City Councilors propose a civilian review board to judge alleged offenses -- brutality, bribery, perjury, et alii? Could it possibly be that the existing system, intimidated by the detective and patrol cop unions (or union-like associations), is too lenient on too many?

One Example

Forget the nebulous ones, those infamous he said/he said deals where a petty criminal charges that a beat officer shook him down for protection money, one on one. Let's look at one high-profile case from 20 years ago, one that illustrates many of the key issues.

Source Notes: There's a little free background on this case. For details, though, you need a Boston Globe account or to pay for the access, or a trip to the library. In the archive, search for Long Kuang Huang. Check 8/22/85, Huang Witness: Woman Yelled 'That's Not Him,' 8/23/85, Defense Witnesses Describe Chinatown Beating, 8/24/85, Judge Rules Huang is Innocent. Detective Kelly Suspended with Pay, 5/5/88, Critics Blast Roache for Decision Not to Fight for Officer's Suspension, 5/15/88 ,'I Really Felt Like I was Railroaded' Boston Detective Speaks Out on Huang Case, and 7/15/89, 2-Way Settlement Ends Police Suit 1985. Brutality Charges Dropped.

I attended the hearings. As a disclaimer, I also know Long Kuang Huang's civil-suit attorney, Barbara Arnwine, casually and socially -- good friend of a good friend. I did not discusss this case with her for this post.

Key events include:
  • On May 1st, 1985, plainclothes Detective Francis G. (Frank) Kelly arrested Huang on the charge of soliciting a prostitute.
  • Every witness including the prostitute said that Kelly picked the wrong man and punched the much smaller, lighter man repeatedly, all without identifying himself.
  • To its credit, the BPD brought him up on a hearing for using excessive force, conduct unbecoming an officer and filing false reports.
  • Despite much theater from Kelly's attorney, the late and very dramatic Thomas C. Troy, the witnesses held firm and it was pretty obvious that Kelly was continuing to lie about the incident.
  • Huang was found innocent of all charges.
  • The Police Superintendent at the time, John Gifford, recommended and the commonwealth's Civil Service Commission approved a one-year suspension without pay for Kelly.
  • Kelly got Municipal Court Judge Theodore S. Bakas to overturn the suspension.
  • BP Commissioner Francis (Mickey) Roache did not fight the decision, infuriating many Asian Bostonians and civil rights advocates.
  • The Supreme Judicial Court reversed that decision.
  • Flying lawsuits -- Huang for civil rights and Kelly for lost wages and legal fees -- ended in an ignominious, weasel settlement. For reasons only the Devil could understand, Kelly got $40,000 in wages, $55,000 in fees and $20,000 just because. Huang of the broken face got $85,000. Kelly, who remained on the force dropped a $1 million civil-rights suit against the BPD.

Personal Responsibility

Perhaps what fascinates most about this case is that even when under the spotlight of truth, Kelly continued to claim that he was in the right and was in fact the victim. "If I really felt it was Frank Kelly they were after, I'd feel bad," he said. "But it could have been any other police officer. This was an incident in which a group of people needed a cause. I became their vehicle."

He did, in fact, get a one-year suspension, initially. That is extraordinarily stiff for the BPD to request. It illustrates both Kelly's offenses and how it affected the public.

Following the case and attending the multi-day hearing, I have a very different perception from Kelly. The most obvious is how Kelly's testimony so fit the stereotype of any other criminal. He denied committing the crime. He testified contrary to the many witnesses. When found culpable, he claimed both innocence and persecution.

From the folding chairs, I recall strongly how incredulous I was at his testimony. Other than his rank and name, he may not have said a single true thing. He was no one's ideal of a police officer. I was not at all surprised that the hearing officers found him responsible.

At the very least, he needed retraining and a unified front in the BPD to let him know that assaulting innocent civilians and then lying about it were wrong. Officers who don't get those concepts should not be carrying guns and badges.

It is notable that both Roache and then Mayor Ray Flynn seemed to agree. They visited Huang and apologized. They wanted Kelly punished.

Different Rules?

Yet our oversight system here is not set up for that, unlike in many U.S. cities. It is like courts martial in that there are many escape hatches and much recourse for appeal built into the system, no matter how egregious the offense or obvious the guilt.

If one of us picked someone a foot shorter and 100 pounds light, pummeled him in the face in front of multiple witnesses, and lied about it on paper and on the witness stand, how likely would it be that we ended up being handed $115,000?

The current system protects wrongly accused officers and guilty ones equally. The penalties for all but the worst offenses, and of those only the ones proven without any question, are extraordinarily light.

Disgraced officers who should be canned may well get a 30-day or 45-day suspension, maybe with pay, in the end. Even here, they might continue to appeal these.

Is it any wonder that some in the BPD and many civilians call for meaningful oversight?

See Also: Who Polices Our Cops and Good Cop/Bad Cop: Says Who?

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for reminding me of the Hwang case. A roommate of mine at the time was a member of Asian Sisters in Action, one of the support groups for the defense. I recall her daily, running commentaries on the case. Poor Mr. Huang. I will never forget his fear, and his tears as the Not Guilty was read. What a disgrace that case was, but how consciousness was raised!

massmarrier said...

I too remember his look at the verdict. Clearly, he had previously held respect for and faith in American justice...and the honesty of the police.