Few turning to civilians’ police board

Report finds public wary of appeal system

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / October 23, 2009

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Five years after an Emerson College junior was shot and killed by a Boston police officer firing a pepper-pellet gun into a crowd at a Red Sox pennant celebration, the civilian review board established to examine allegations of police brutality and misconduct is seldom used and deeply mistrusted by the public it was designed to serve, according to a new report by Harvard University researchers.

The report paints a portrait of a civilian review board that is languishing in obscurity and falling woefully short of its mission to build trust in the Boston Police Department.

The board was set up in March 2007 to independently examine misconduct allegations brought by people who were not satisfied after their complaints were dismissed by the police department. But, according to the report, only seven of the 116 people in that category sought the board’s help as of September 2008. And this year, only three people have appealed their cases to the board.

Interviews by the Harvard team with 27 people who did not appeal to the board after their abuse allegations were dismissed found that the vast majority were disillusioned with the way the police department handled their cases. Only one of those surveyed knew the civilian review board existed. Many believed that the police department’s internal affairs division, which investigates allegations of misconduct, as well as the independent civilian review board, favored police officers and would not take their complaints seriously.

Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis said he was “surprised and disappointed’’ that so few people have used the board, and he is committed to making it work. He said he is trying to “scare up’’ money for a more comprehensive review by Harvard, and is also trying to better inform the public about the board by sending officers to neighborhood meetings and putting up more signs in police stations.

The civilian review board, formally called the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, is made up of three people appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino; one of the seats has been vacant since August. The police department currently informs people about the board by mailing them a letter if their complaint is dismissed by internal affairs.

Davis said he is also trying to establish a mediation process to review complaints, which the Harvard report recommended. Davis said that not only are citizens unhappy with the system, a survey of officers would probably show “a similar feeling of dissatisfaction with the whole procedure.’’

“I’d be very upset’’ if the panel did not succeed, Davis said.

Menino was for years reluctant to create the civilian review board, saying he worried about lawsuits, opposition from police unions, and overly aggressive oversight of officers. He resisted demands by activists who said Boston needed a board, similar to those in other cities, to investigate allegations of excessive force, discrimination, and other unprofessional conduct.

But Menino reversed course in 2004, after the Emerson student, Victoria Snelgrove, was shot and killed by an officer who fired a pepper-pellet gun he was not trained to use. An independent commission that reviewed the shooting declared that “The Boston Police Department has relatively little external oversight for a department of its size’’ and recommended the mayor establish a board that would review injuries, to civilians or to police officers, that resulted from the use of force. The Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel was a compromise between activists and police officers, with the power to review cases and recommend further investigation, but not the subpoena power some activists had demanded.

Members of the oversight panel requested the Harvard study, puzzled by how few people were appealing their cases.

“If people feel they haven’t been given a fair shot, we would like the word out there, as much as possible, that there’s a group of people who will try and be as fair as we honestly can,’’ said John F. O’Brien, the dean of the New England School of Law and a member of the board.

Jack McDevitt, the associate dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, was among a group of community leaders, activists, and academics who met earlier this month with Menino and Davis to look at ways to build trust in the board and raise its profile. McDevitt said the city faces a particularly steep challenge in persuading people who make complaints - many of whom are young people of color, deeply mistrustful of the police - to believe in the independence of the civilian review board.

“The word hasn’t gotten out to the community, so the community is functioning off whatever stereotypes they have about police,’’ McDevitt said. “This is a constant problem in every city, and it’s not unique to Boston.’’

Jorge Martinez, executive director of Project RIGHT, a Grove Hall antiviolence program, said neighborhood organizations can play an important role in convincing people whose complaints have been dismissed by the police that the review board is fair and independent.

“This is about building people’s trust in a system that hasn’t served them,’’ Martinez said, “and you can’t do that overnight.’’

The report was conducted by a team of researchers led by Christopher E. Stone, a professor of criminal justice at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Stone said the review board and the police department’s internal affairs system are suffering for a variety of reasons, some of them quite simple: They are not keeping in touch with people who file complaints, are not informing them of the steps involved, and are giving them only 14 days to file an appeal.

He said the board is now facing a critical test: Will it improve its accessibility and transparency or will it, as some skeptics have long predicted, dissolve because of a lack of public faith and confidence in its independence?

“Modern, well-managed organizations want to hear from the public - both good and bad comments,’’ Stone said. “This system is not hearing from the public.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at