Friday, August 25, 2006

One Eye on Boston Cops

Amazing. Really.

Mayor Tom Menino will give us a half-empowered civilian review system for monitoring Boston police. That is a huge first step.

The Globe scooped this, as in the above link.

Key points include:
  • a part-time, professional, three-person ombudsman system will review civilian complaints
  • they can request BPD's Internal Affairs to revisit cases
  • they can't subpoena anyone and can't force the police to overturn decisions
  • they report to the mayor annually
For any Boston mayor to stand up to cops this much is a big deal, and again, a start. "Is it all we want?," asked Darnell Williams, Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts president and CEO. "Probably not. Is it moving the the direction? Yes."

Previously, we joined City Councilor Felix Arroyo in calling for a fully empowered board as many cities have.

Amusingly enough, Internal Affairs has recently been firmer on complaints. They pointed out, allegedly as proof they did not need such a board, that they went from supporting 8% of civilian complaints in 2001 to 34% last year. Of course another way of viewing that is 1) they weren't doing their job before and 2) they only responded, and perhaps temporarily, to considerable public and governmental pressure, to maintain their power.

So, we might well wonder what we would and would not get from the new Civilian Review and Mediation Board. Consider:
  • It will get the case files for serious allegations (like drug use by cops) that Internal Affairs dismisses
  • It can do the same if a citizen appeals an Internal Affairs decision
  • It can tell the investigators to reinterview witnesses an reevaluate
  • It can ask the police commissioner to intervene
  • It can offer officers mediation to resolve a compliant, which would not put an Internal Affairs investigation into their files
  • Civilian complaint forms will be available on a city Website to ease the process and increase the likelihood of filings
This watchdog is, yes, toothless, but it could gum bad cops pretty severely. Of course, that will depend on whom Menino appoints, on what he does with any report, on whether the police see the advantage in punishing their bad members to save the force, and whether a new commissioner takes this process seriously.

The criminal-justice scholar who created the report calling for such a board (but one with subpoena powers) had mixed praise. "Most important, from our perspective, is that there is a review of the process after a certain period of time, so that if there needs to be more community involvement and more investigative powers for these folks, that can be addressed," said Northeastern University's Jack McDevitt.

The extremely powerful patrolmen's and detective unions here must have flexed the mayor's way. They have to be happy that the new board will be in the position of requesting cooperation and investigation, and not being able to call its own witnesses.

This level of oversight will certainly not inspire ordinary folk -- particularly in poor neighborhoods -- to trust and support police. That will only come if this board's existence changes behavior and begins getting tangible results.

We'll give Da Mare a solid B on this course.

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