August 23, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 2
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A year later, still no teeth for Hub cop review

Dan Devine

It’s been 364 days since Mayor Thomas M. Menino first announced his plans for a three-member civilian board to review allegations of misconduct by members of the Boston Police Department (BPD). One year later, the panel is finally open for business. That much is known.

What is not known, however, could fill a warehouse.

According to a published report, the renamed “Community Ombudsmen Oversight Panel and Complaint Mediation Program” had, at long last, hung up its shingle at the end of July — outside the front door of the BPD’s Internal Affairs Division (IAD), where the panel’s offices are located.

That work address is somewhat troubling to Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG).

In a letter dated Jan. 30, the NLG, the American Friends Service Committee and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law of the Boston Bar Association sent the city and each of the appointed panelists a list of recommendations for the structure of the civilian review board — among them the suggestion that the review board be located at a neutral territory, rather than at City Hall or a police facility.

The reasoning for the suggestion, Masny-Latos said, was not only the potential of police intimidation deterring aggrieved citizens from bringing their complaints forward for appeal, but also the danger of having the objectivity of the ombudsmen compromised by working so closely with the very officers they are charged with overseeing.

“We were a little surprised, because the whole idea behind a civilian review board — the one that we had in our minds — was to create an independent body that would provide some oversight and look at complaints that come against the department or individual police officers,” she said. “How can you have people who are supposed to look at complaints about the department actually work within the department?”

Masny-Latos is quick to point out that her concerns stem not from a negative perception of the panelists’ character, calling them “incredible people” for whom she has a lot of respect.

“I really don’t question their integrity,” she said. “But at the same time, the structure in which they are supposed to function is so limited that it is difficult — for us, at least — to see the role that they can effectively play.”

Masny-Latos placed a couple of follow-up calls to the Mayor’s Office several weeks after the recommendations were sent, in the hope of starting a dialogue about the structure of the panel.

“I was told that someone would get back to me,” she said. “No one has.”

With the panel now active, many questions remain.

Have any cases been referred to the board since its opening? Why don’t review board members have access to police personnel files?

Perhaps most important: Can a review panel that operates largely in secret, cannot conduct independent investigations, and doesn’t have the power to issue subpoenas truly inspire the community’s trust that their complaints are getting a fair shake?

Menino was unavailable to comment.

The road to the panel’s opening began with Menino’s announcement last Aug. 24. The mayor said he would begin reviewing candidates for the board “immediately,” cautioning that it could take several weeks to settle on the board’s three members.

On January 22, nearly five months after setting the “several weeks” timetable, Menino appointed New England School of Law Dean John F. O’Brien, Northeastern University School of Law Professor David Hall and retired former state Parole Board member Ruth Suber to serve three-year terms on the board. At the time, city officials said they hoped to have the ombudsmen reviewing cases within several weeks of their appointment, after first undergoing training on IAD’s inner workings.

More than six months later, on July 31, the Boston Globe reported that the review board had completed IAD training on police procedures, “with a focus on use-of-force guidelines,” and that citizens could begin asking the board to look into complaints.

How exactly citizens make such a request is also unclear. Those who feel that they have been victims of police misconduct can file Internal Affairs complaint forms online via the City of Boston’s Web site,; via phone, by calling 617-343-4320; or in person, by visiting any district police station and asking to speak to a supervisor. A list of district stations is available online at

But those complaints merely begin the Internal Affairs investigation. The city has provided no information regarding how citizens who believe their Internal Affairs complaints have been incorrectly dismissed can appeal their cases to the panel.

The city has hired a full-time executive secretary to handle the flow of cases and to act as an administrative liaison for communications among IAD, the citizens who have filed complaints against officers and the panelists reviewing the complaints. That secretary’s name has not been made public, and no contact information for the secretary or the panel’s office is presently available.

As far as what the board can and will do, citizens know little more now than what was included in a one-page outline that City Corporation Counsel William F. Sinnott handed to attendees at an October 2006 community forum held to discuss the board’s formation.

That outline said that all cases in which IAD dismissed allegations of serious misconduct or unjustified use of force, as well as those less serious cases in which a citizen appeals an Internal Affairs decision, are eligible for review. The Globe reported on July 31 that the board will automatically review cases that allege serious police misconduct, and that IAD will determine which cases are serious enough to constitute automatic review.

Board members will have access to all materials contained within IAD files, excluding police personnel records, and the panel’s review is limited to the process by which police investigators came to their decisions.

After reviewing the case files, if the reviewing ombudsman is unsatisfied with an investigation, he or she can ask IAD investigators to revisit the complaint for additional investigation, clarification or review. The panel cannot conduct its own investigations or issue subpoenas. It can make non-binding recommendations to the police commissioner, with whom all power to make decisions about discipline remains.

Amid the vast uncertainty surrounding the panel’s operations, Masny-Latos hopes that the panelists can find a way to be effective. But she isn’t holding her breath.

“We don’t even know if they’ve yet to do any work, but maybe if they start doing something, they realize how limited their powers are and maybe they’ll go beyond what has been given to them,” she said. “But within the structure that the mayor has put in place, I doubt that they will be able to provide service such that those who are supposed to be served will be satisfied.

“I really don’t think that they will be able to do the work that they are supposed to do.”

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