‘Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied': Boston Pressured to Revamp Police Oversight Board

As police across the country face calls for greater accountability, shortcomings in the internal affairs process within the Boston Police Department are under fresh scrutiny.

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In the spring of 2018, Pierce Martin was leaving a party in Roxbury when he was stopped by Boston police.

According to their report, officers were responding to a call of shots fired, and they thought Martin looked like he might be armed.

“I agreed to a pat down because I had no weapon on me,” he recalled.

But his encounter with police grew confrontational. In a video shot by bystanders, Martin can be heard objecting to the officers’ treatment. He told the NBC10 Investigators the search became intrusive – something he didn’t consent to.

After the incident, Martin lodged a complaint with Boston police. But two years later, he’s still waiting for the department to finish its internal investigation into the officer’s conduct.

Natashia Tidwell, a lawyer who previously served on the civilian board that reviews Boston police internal affairs investigations, said it’s not uncommon for misconduct probes to drag on for years – a fact advocates for police reform have long decried.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, right?” she said.

As police across the country face calls for greater accountability, shortcomings in the internal affairs process within the Boston Police Department are under fresh scrutiny.

Some local activists say the department takes too long to investigate misconduct allegations and rarely sides with citizens who file complaints.

Amid calls for police reform, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced Friday that racism is a public health crisis in the city.

They also want the city to revamp the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, a mechanism established more than a decade ago to restore public confidence in the BPD internal affairs process.

The board reviews misconduct investigations after they’re completed to determine whether police considered the allegations in a fair and thorough way.

But critics say the board has no teeth. It can’t do investigations of its own, weigh in on discipline or prevent complaints from being dismissed.

“To not have the power to say ‘No, that complaint should have been sustained,’ you know, I think that's where you get to the teeth part of it,” Tidwell said.

Boston police have faced calls to strengthen misconduct probes since at least the early 1990s, when a study pointed to a wide range of problems within the Internal Affairs Division, including significant delays and a process that was unfairly skewed against the public.

A 2005 study commissioned by the city found little improvement. Citizens said the BPD internal affairs process took too long, and was not transparent. Some said they felt like misconduct complaints “disappeared into a black hole,” according to the researchers who conducted the review.

In response, Mayor Thomas Menino established the CO-OP board through an executive order in 2007 to expand the community’s role in police oversight.

The panel hears appeals from citizens who feel their complaints against police weren’t investigated fairly, and also reviews a random sample of cases in which officers were cleared of wrongdoing.

If an ombudsman thinks the process wasn’t fair, he or she can ask the police department to investigate further, though the final determination lies with the police commissioner.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker addressed calls for police reform with new legislation.

During the period from 2011 to 2015, about 25% of cases reviewed by the CO-OP board were deemed not fair, not thorough or both, according to a summary published by the board.

The group also previously released summary data on the findings of police misconduct investigations. The numbers show, on average, only about 12% of allegations made by citizens against police were sustained during the period from 2007 through 2014.

Several years ago, after a string of police killings of unarmed Black men sparked widespread protests across the country, current Boston Mayor Marty Walsh promised to strengthen the CO-OP board, and asked members for a series of recommendations.

In response, board members said they were hamstrung in reviewing use-of-force cases. The police department previously had sole discretion in referring such cases to the CO-OP board and didn’t refer any during the board’s first eight years in existence, according to the group.

Walsh enacted some of the board’s proposals in 2017, increasing its case load and expanding the group from three to five members. Additionally, the panel now reviews allegations of serious misconduct, including cases in which a prisoner or suspect dies or is seriously hurt, or an officer is accused of lying or acting with discriminatory intent.

But the mayor failed to act on a key recommendation from the group. Realizing their limitations, Tidwell and others proposed establishing an independent city office to help citizens file complaints and monitor the progress of investigations.

Civilian employees “can call the police department [and] say what's happening? … Have you looked for this particular piece of evidence? We're learning that this particular witness is leaving the country,” Tidwell explained.

With protesters taking to the streets once again to denounce racism and police brutality, Walsh promised last week to overhaul the CO-OP board. The mayor appointed a special task force to study policing in Boston and offer recommendations within 60 days.

“We're not going to let this moment, or this movement, pass us by,” he said.

Boston Mayor Walsh recommending to move 20 percent of the Boston Police Departments' overtime budget to social services.

A spokeswoman for the city did not respond to a request for comment from the mayor regarding the CO-OP board. She said members of the panel were not available to be interviewed.

A spokesman for the Boston Police Department did not answer questions posed by email regarding the 2018 incident in Roxbury and delays in the internal affairs process. The department did not respond to a request to interview the police commissioner.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell said she’s long pushed for hearings on police reform, including measures to provide meaningful community oversight of police misconduct, but received little support.

“If we're serious about making change, we need to do it in a public way so people see it and know what the action plan is,” she said.

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