Was it an oversight?
Police complaint board down to two members, hasn’t released reports
Two years ago, Mayor Martin Walsh announced sweeping changes to the underperforming Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel board, the group responsible for reviewing police misconduct investigations by the Boston Police Department’s Internal Affairs Department.
While not a civilian review board, the COOP board was designed to provide civilians unhappy with police investigations another avenue to pursue complaints of police misconduct. In its first 10 years of operation, however, criminal justice reform activists complained that the board heard few cases and did little to help people who accused police officers of misconduct and abuse.
In 2017, Walsh said the board would expand from three to five members and would take on more cases. Yet two years later, the board hasn’t even released data on cases it has reviewed over the last four years and has just one member. J. Larry Mayes, who resigned from the COOP board Tuesday, Nov. 12, was in February appointed strategic advisor for humanitarian and public affairs for Harvest Health and Recreation, Inc., an Arizona-based cannabis company.
NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha Sullivan has consistently called for a civilian review board, independent of the police department. The current state of the COOP board, she says, is telling.
“The fact that we have yet another example of an executive order with implementation is as thin as the paper it is written on is gravely concerning,” she said.
The mayor’s press office did not respond to a request for comment by the Banner’s press deadline.
Since Walsh’s 2017 executive order, the board seems to have largely stayed out of public view.
“I don’t even think people know about it anymore,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. “There hasn’t been any meaningful conversation about it. It’s just faded into the background.”
In many ways, the COOP board had its genesis in the 1989 Charles Stuart case, in which a white man drove into the Mission Main housing development, shot and killed his wife, shot himself, then called police and blamed the crime on a black man.
As police turned Mission Hill and eventually, Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan upside down looking for a suspect who, as it turned out, did not exist, black teenagers and men were stopped throughout those neighborhoods and in many cases illegally searched.
Roxbury activist Jamarhl Crawford was among the countless black men who underwent humiliating public strip searches during that time.
“The drawers dropped by the knees — all that,” Crawford recalls. “It happened to everybody on Humboldt Ave. We’re pretty far from Mission Hill, but they cast a wide net.”
The rampant violations of blacks’ Fourth Amendment rights led to a review of police practices, helmed by attorney James St. Clair. The resulting 1992 St. Clair Commission Report recommended the creation of a civilian oversight panel to hear allegations of police misconduct.
Despite pressure from criminal justice reform advocates, then-Mayor Thomas Menino resisted calls for such a panel. In 2007, Menino instead created the three-member COOP board. The board does not have the power to conduct its own investigations of police misconduct. As such, the board members cannot interview the complainants or the accused police officers.
How COOP works
Once a citizen complaint makes its way through the BPD’s often lengthy Internal Affairs Department process and, as is most often the case, not sustained, a complainant has 14 days to refer it to the COOP board. The COOP board then reviews the case and makes one of four rulings on the IAD investigation: fair and thorough; not fair and thorough; fair and not thorough; or unfair and unthorough. In addition to civilian-initiated complaints, the board also reviews a random sample of IAD cases.
In its report on the years 2015 and 2016 — the most recent report available on its website — the COOP board lists 60 cases. In 44 of them, the board found that the investigations were fair and thorough; in five, not fair and thorough; in six, not fair and thorough and in five, not fair and not thorough. Cases that are not deemed fair and thorough are then sent to the Boston Police commissioner, who has the authority to re-open IAD investigations or ignore the COOP board’s recommendations.
In a 2015 report, COOP board members wrote that the sample of cases reviewed “falls far short of a representative sample,” and that the current process denies the community a significant voice in the complaint resolution process. The COOP board members suggested the creation of a “community-based office of citizen complaint intake and resolution,” echoing the 1992 recommendation of the St. Clair Commission report. The COOP board also recommended an increase of its own capacity to review cases.
Walsh declined to act on the board’s first recommendation — an inaction Crawford describes as indicative of an historical pattern of lack of political will on police reform in Boston.
“They release a study, they share the facts, then nothing happens,” he said. “They don’t follow their own reports and their own recommendations.”
Walsh did issue an executive order in 2017 that, if acted on, would have allowed for as many as five members on the COOP board and would have automatically referred cases in which a suspect died or suffered serious bodily injury while in BPD custody.
A portion of other categories of cases, including use of force or perjury by a police officer, would be randomly assigned to the COOP board, under Walsh’s executive order. But as in the past, the board has no power to conduct interviews or its own investigation. The police commissioner alone has the power to decide whether to re-open an investigation or overrule the COOP board.
It’s unclear to what extent Walsh’s executive order has been implemented. The COOP board has not posted reports for the years 2017 and 2018 on its website.
“I would submit that in the most favorable light it points to clear disconnect between the mayor’s intention and his team’s ability to implement,” Sullivan said.