If US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan cares about the quality of justice in Boston and the performance of the troubled Boston Police Department (BPD), he will launch an investigation into how that department managed to help convict the wrong man — Stephan Cowans — in the 1997 shooting of a Boston cop. As a result of either staggeringly poor police work or serious wrongdoing, Cowans spent six-and-a-half years in prison. State and county officials have proven that they did not — and still do not — have the guts or the wit to do the job of policing the police.
Not quite four years ago, announcing the end of the probe into Cowans’s wrongful conviction, then–attorney general Thomas Reilly said that “we used every tool at our disposal,” but could not bring any criminal charges against the officers responsible.
Anyone who reads the exclusive report by David S. Bernstein will find that conclusion a hard pill to swallow. The possibility of serious police misconduct is too strong to ignore.
The US Attorney’s Office has the tools for the job, including the ability to levy conspiracy- and public-corruption charges. Sullivan may also be far enough removed from the city police and prosecutors to tackle the case aggressively, and to answer the difficult and uncomfortable questions that beg resolution.
There are clear, compelling reasons to clarify the miscarriage of justice that the Cowans case represents.
Any cops, retired or active, found to have deliberately subverted justice should be called to account. Any of those still on the force who are found to be incompetent need oversight and training. A real cop shooter remains unidentified.
A US Justice Department investigation could bring a cleansing light to bear on the BPD, and might very well lead to reforms that, for a variety of reasons — some valid, others bogus — local political leaders have been unable or unwilling to enact.
But there is an even greater reason to investigate the Cowans case: the sense of trust and community that normally holds a city together is obviously unraveling in Boston’s streets.
Quite simply, we need to trust our cops. And to do that, we need to know that someone will hold cops responsible if they abuse their badges.
Our officials have chosen to bury their heads in the sand. Five years ago, they received an unmistakable warning, a red flag they chose to ignore and deny. In 2003, the city’s biannual survey of residents’ attitudes toward the police revealed a sharp drop in citywide confidence. That lack of confidence was clear in white neighborhoods, but it was felt most acutely among African-American Bostonians. Rather than act on the report’s findings, Mayor Thomas Menino chose to aggressively discount them. When the Phoenix obtained and reported the results, Menino and then–police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole criticized the survey, and decided never to conduct it again, dismantling one of the city’s early-warning systems that measures public confidence in the police.