Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s plan for a panel of three civilians to review complaints about the police is vintage Menino. And that, sad to say, is not a compliment. The politics are shrewd — in a passive-aggressive sort of way — but as a piece of policy it is lacking, pathetically inadequate.
After dragging his heels for two years in the wake of the accidental shooting death by police of 21-year-old Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove during a spontaneous but easily anticipated Red Sox–victory celebration outside Fenway Park in 2004, Menino has finally seen fit to act. But it’s too little, too late. And the plan raises far more questions than it answers.
First there is the question of just how independent the panel will be. Will it be an arm of the mayor’s office with little independence and even less motivation to act on its own? There is little to suggest otherwise. Will at least one member be appointed by an outside entity, or will someone other than the mayor submit names from which Menino can choose?
The panel will review allegations of serious misconduct, such as assault or illegal drug use, which are dismissed by the department’s Internal Affairs Division (IAD). Why only those that are dismissed? Will this encourage IAD to find some fault and give light penalties, to keep the cases from review? Also, the most serious cases, such as the shooting of civilians, are already reviewed by the district attorney’s office, which in recent years has a highly suspect record of finding 100 percent of such shootings justified. Why won’t those investigations come under review by this board?
The civilian review board will look into less serious cases if a member of the public appeals a decision by Internal Affairs. But why must the public trigger the process, and not also the board members or police themselves? How will the public learn that the IAD has dismissed an allegation? For years one of the biggest complaints has been that citizens’ complaints disappear into the IAD netherland and it’s nearly impossible to find out what happened.
The board will not have the power to conduct its own investigations or to issue subpoenas. Rather, after reviewing case files, these mayoral appointees can direct investigators to go back and re-interview witnesses or investigate further. If, after that, they still have concerns about an investigation, they can ask the police commissioner to intervene. In other words, the board will be toothless.
By restricting the board only to interviews and documentation produced by IAD’s investigations, the mayor has handed the IAD an incentive for doing less-thorough investigations to avoid creating reviewable material. This is already a huge problem in criminal investigations, where Boston Police Department detectives deliberately try to avoid creating material that would then have to be given to the defense. Asking the same investigators to re-interview or investigate further ensures that the work will get done very slowly — if at all.
It’s not clear how the structure of the board members’ terms might affect their independence; whether the board has the power to initiate a new complaint, for example, if members believe an officer lied in the course of an internal investigation.