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.
The city’s lack of faith in the BPD was recorded even before residents had to endure a gut-wrenching parade of innocent men released from prison, where they had been wrongly sent by Boston police. Not one of these cases has been adequately explained. Not one officer has been disciplined for their actions in these cases.
It may be that none deserves to be. But city residents would have more confidence that all hands are clean were they provided with evidence that “every tool” has indeed been used to uncover wrongdoing.
At the height of public concern about Boston’s recent wrongful-conviction plague — just after the Cowans exoneration in 2004 — Reilly and the state’s district attorneys announced a “Justice Initiative” to examine the problem. Boston’s district attorney Daniel Conley and current attorney general Martha Coakley led the effort. They promised a report in 90 days; what they eventually released, two-and-a-half years later, could have been assembled in the bat of an eye.
In its introduction, the state’s top prosecutors wrote that “What was at stake was not only the integrity of individual prosecutions, but also the confidence of the public in the integrity of the system itself.”
Yet their conclusions, supposedly based on thorough reviews of all relevant cases, found no systemic issues, called wrongful convictions a problem of the distant past, held nobody accountable, and proposed no serious reforms.
If police conduct in the Cowans case had no other implications, Cowans’s story would already be the stuff of a Greek tragedy: an innocent man arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned; then exonerated, freed, and made a rich man by compensation for the wrong done to him; finally, in his new home, brutally killed by someone apparently seeking the money for which Cowans had so dearly paid.
But Cowans’s plight is about much more. It is about a city whose residents, surrounded by shootings, choose not to cooperate with police against those tormenting them; a city in which jurors acquit criminals despite the testimony of veteran officers; a city in which gang members shoot with impunity in broad daylight. It is about a city in which good, hard-working, honest cops can’t do their jobs because of the stain left by the bad ones.
Policing the police on behalf of Boston citizens will take effort and openness from the top — a fitting memorial to the memory of Stephan Cowans, who in life was no angel but who wrongfully suffered six-and-a-half years of unjust imprisonment for a shooting he did not commit. It’s time for the US Attorney to act.