Lawrence Harmon

Who’s policing the police?

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / July 2, 2011

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EITHER BOSTON has the best-behaved police officers in the country or residents don’t complain about treatment at the hands of police because they consider it a waste of time. The smart money is on the latter.

In 2010, residents filed just 138 complaints against the Boston Police, a force of more than 2,000 sworn officers. The police force in Portland, Ore. - roughly half the size of Boston’s - received almost three times that number of complaints for reasons ranging from rudeness to excessive use of force. In Denver, citizens filed 600 complaints against the city’s almost 1,500-member police force.

Boston police officers aren’t exactly choirboys. So what accounts for their suspiciously clean record? One answer could be the city’s longstanding resistance to a strong, independent monitor of the police. While other cities go to great lengths and costs to provide civilian oversight of the police and publicize its existence, Boston makes do with a stripped-down, three-member Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel that reviews only a small number of citizen complaints. And there’s not much urgency in its work. The board hasn’t met since November, and the terms of all its members have lapsed.

Last week, the ACLU and other civil rights groups called on Mayor Menino to admit that his system is a failure and urged him to “create a functional civilian oversight body.’’ But the mayor seems allergic to the task. In 2005, Northeastern University criminologist Jack McDevitt provided Menino with a comprehensive analysis of oversight boards across the United States, including highly regarded models in Phoenix and Denver that could be replicated in Boston. Menino didn’t even want to show the report to the public, never mind choose a strong model that might have alienated the patrolmen’s union. When he finally focused on the task, he opted for a board with little clout.

The best civilian review boards make room for actual civilians during the investigation of police misconduct. Some cities, including Portland, go so far as to invest their boards with subpoena power. That’s mostly for show. The real power comes from the ability of civilian investigators to speak directly with complainants and witnesses, observe the interviews of officers by internal affairs investigators, have a voice in disciplinary proceedings, and even arrange mediation sessions between the police and the offended parties.

In Boston, members of the mayoral-appointed panel do none of the above. Instead, they conduct paper reviews of a small slice of randomly chosen cases, in addition to examining appeals by citizens who believe the internal investigation was unfair. Business is slow. During the first half of 2010, the panel reviewed just 13 cases, according to its most recent annual report. In all of 2009, it reviewed just five cases. Half-hearted attempts to inform the public of the board’s existence in 2006 and 2007 also fell flat.

Boston needs an independent oversight board worthy of the name. And that requires a role for civilians from the time of the initial complaint to the determination of punishment when a case against an officer is sustained. The Menino administration could start by making it easier for the public to identify officers. Boston police are required to state their name, rank, and badge number upon the request of a civilian. But who is going to remember it, especially in a tense situation? In Portland, officers are required to carry and provide business cards, with the number of the independent police review panel printed on the back. And in Portland, unlike here, people can go directly to the independent monitor - not to the police - with their complaints about neglect of duty, use of force, discourtesy, and any other alleged misdeed.

Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis is intrigued by the notion of mandatory business cards for his officers. “It increases professionalism,’’ he said. But he isn’t sold on the need for an overhaul of the city’s oversight panel. He predicts that complaints will rise to a more realistic level in 2011 after his recent order that captains report all complaints, including any that are resolved informally.

William Sinnott, the city’s chief attorney, said that three new members would be named to the oversight panel in a matter of days. But expanding the structure and duties of the panel, he said, would just be looking for trouble.

But looking for trouble is exactly what the police are supposed to do. Even if the troublemakers are wearing badges.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at