Reports that Mayor Thomas Menino has once again tried to eliminate effective civilian oversight over the Boston police department makes you wonder – do the Mayor and Boston Police have something to hide?
After years of resisting efforts at any civilian review process whatsoever, Mayor Menino finally agreed in 2007 to set up a panel called the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel – or COOP. The Mayor didn’t do so willingly. Rather, he was forced to contemplate an independent police review panel when an Emerson College student, Victoria Snelgrove, was shot and killed by an officer who fired a pepper-pellet gun he was not trained to use during a Red Sox celebration.
Even then, it took three years and the Mayor tried to deep-six a report by Northeastern Unviersity researchers on what a strong oversight panel should entail. Only after the Northeastern University report was leaked to the Globe did the Mayor reluctantly agree to set up the COOP.
Moreover, the Mayor’s executive order stripped the board of basic powers of subpoena and ability to call witnesses – two key elements of effective oversight for any civilian review board.
Two years later, researchers at Harvard released a study showing that the civilian review process was failing: only seven of 116 people whose complaints were dismissed by police had sought appeals to the COOP. Apparently, the police failed to tell citizens who believed their rights were violated that appeal was an option.
Since then, the COOP has become virtually defunct. Yesterday, four civil rights organizations joined together in a letter to Mayor Menino asking him to revive the COOP and adopt significant changes to make it actually work. The organizations – the ACLU of Massachusetts (where I work), the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law - Boston, the National Police Accountability Project, and the National Lawyers Guild - Massachusetts Chapter – wrote in their letter that more than a year has passed without filling a position vacated when one of the three members of the COOP, former Northeastern Law Dean David Hall, resigned, and the terms of the other two members of the panel have expired. Even worse, the COOP no longer bothers to meet
“The public should not be misled into believing Boston has a meaningful process of civilian review, when it does not,’’ states the letter. “The city of Boston appears to be content with an agency that exists only on paper.’’
It’s time for the Boston City Council and the rest of us ask: Do the Mayor and Boston Police Department have something to hide? If not, it’s time to put in a place a strong and vibrant civilian police oversight system in Boston.
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