Anyone who watches police dramas such as Law & Order or CSI might get the idea that cops from time to time stretch the envelope, but as a matter of course mind their p’s and q’s. On television, respect for their by-the-book superiors and fear that gumshoes from internal affairs will bust them back to traffic duty keep the men and women in blue more or less in line.
Reality, however, as represented by the Boston Police Department, is a very different kind of show.
At the moment, a series of troubling cases is coalescing in a way that threatens the progress Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis has made in cleaning up and retooling the troubled department. How the department handles this bad news — forthrightly, as seems to be the predilection of Davis, or by denying and minimizing, as Boston mayor Thomas Menino too often does — may determine how well Boston weathers yet another crisis in police confidence.
The scandals include:
• Steroid use and dealing among BPD officers, discovered during the Roberto Pulido investigation. Pulido, who pleaded guilty to previous weapons and narcotics charges and is currently awaiting sentencing in federal court, was caught on tape at least a half-dozen times selling — allegedly to other officers — testosterone, deca, sustanon, winstrol stanozolol (“winnies”), somatropin/nordtropin (growth hormones), and syringes. The steroid case is currently being heard by a grand jury. If other police officers are indicted, there will be a nasty ripple effect. What have until now been whispers — or, at best, unconfirmed allegations of misbehavior and use of excessive force perhaps attributable to this sort of drug use — will have to be reexamined.
• Expected additional information about police participation in drug and sex parties, another offshoot of the Pulido investigation. Involvement in illegal gambling may also prove to be more widespread than previously suspected. And, according to a report by WFXT-TV’s Mike Beaudet, some public officials may be implicated.
• Missing drugs from the department’s Hyde Park evidence-storage locker. The FBI is processing evidence, including fingerprints, connected with the missing drugs, and should soon report its findings, Davis recently told the Phoenix’s David S. Bernstein. The results could lead to discipline or even prosecution of officers.
• The review into the Stephan Cowans case. This past month, the Phoenix reported that police in effect framed Cowans, who was wrongfully convicted of shooting a Boston policeman. Davis has ordered a review that, depending on the results, could implicate officers — detectives, as well as ballistics and fingerprint examiners — who have testified in hundreds of cases.
• New evidence of improper behavior or cover-ups in wrongful-conviction cases. A civil-rights trial against the BPD detectives charged with misconduct in the wrongful conviction of Shawn Drumgold is currently in progress. Other such cases are working their way through the courts. And one already settled by the city, that of Neil Miller, has just resurfaced. Miller’s attorneys now accuse the BPD of lying when it claimed to have conducted an internal investigation into alleged misconduct by crime-lab and forensics specialists — misconduct that the attorneys suggest may have been systemic.
As if these investigations are not troubling enough, the BPD is also dealing with allegations of officers roughing up wives, girlfriends, and even female strangers while off duty. Despite a 2005 BPD committee’s own findings on domestic abuse, which faulted both the department’s disciplinary and counseling efforts, recent stories in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald about officers involved with domestic-violence incidents show the toothless approach the department takes in policing its own. Davis admitted to the Phoenix that some cases result in wrist-slapping simply because pursuing severe discipline, or termination, is too difficult a legal process.
As the details of these abuse cases emerge, the likelihood is that the public will get a look at how political connections have served to protect police who engage in questionable conduct, on and off duty.
Menino, other elected officials, and the brass in police headquarters need to demonstrate that the days of such protection are over.
With all that is going on in the background and in the headlines, some are wondering why Menino has chosen this particular moment to rage against violent video games, about which he can do nothing, when there is so much trouble within the ranks of the police department, a department that, like so many others, he seems to micro-manage.
The deeply rooted problems that plague the BPD, of course, transcend the mayor’s office. Menino deserves credit for appointing Davis. Davis deserves recognition for wrestling in a serious way to right past wrongs and set the BPD on a proper course. The patrolman’s union, which inexplicably protects bad cops and stymies needed reform, must in some almost mystical way be convinced it is in the interests of its members to enjoy greater public confidence for the admittedly difficult and — at times — seemingly impossible jobs they have to do.