Renewed interest in Massachusetts police civilian review boards

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Activist Jamarhl Crawford is now part of the  Boston Police Reform Task Force that was created by Mayor Marty Walsh earlier this month.

BOSTON —

It’s been three years since Jamarhl Crawford made a complaint about what he believed was misconduct by a Boston police officer, but he still has no answers.

“I was told by elected officials and administration and police officials that I should complain. That the system does work,” he said. “I’m an activist. I did complain and I’m still waiting on my results.”

Crawford is also a member of the Boston Police Reform Task Force, created earlier this month by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh.

“No one should be left in the dark and waiting for three years without hearing anything,” he said.

Activist Jamarhl Crawford is on a new city panel studying police oversight.

Crawford said that the lack of communication is just one reason Boston needs a new civilian oversight board for the police department.

Former police officer and federal prosecutor Natashia Tidwell agrees.

“The question, does Boston have civilian oversight? Someone might answer, ‘Yes, they have the CO-OP.’ But the CO-OP is not civilian oversight,” she said.

Tidwell served on the CO-OP, short for Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, from 2011 to 2018. But she said its power is limited.

It can only look into whether completed Internal Affairs investigations were fair and thorough. The CO-OP can’t say whether an officer committed misconduct.

In 2015, Tidwell and two other panel members released this report critical of the Boston Police internal affairs process, and the CO-OP’s ability to improve it.

The report called for a new “independent community based police complaint review body.”

“The difference in my mind is a civilian review board, or a civilian oversight board, is involved in the complaint intake and sort of the life of a complaint within the police department as it’s being investigated and resolved,” Tidwell said.

Natashia Tidwell, a former member Boston’s Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, said the CO-OP’s power is limited.

Boston police did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for Mayor Marty Walsh referred to earlier comments made by Walsh that he wants to strengthen the CO-OP board.

Jack McDevitt, the Director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, has studied this issue for decades, and says strong civilian oversight of police has been lacking in Boston and around the country for years.

“The important part is that the community becomes an equal partner in doing the investigation,” he said.

“So when you think about this board not doing very much now, what goes through your mind?” 5 Investigates’ Karen Anderson asked him.

“Frustration,” he responded. “But I do think that we’re at a point where we can really revisit this and we could do it right and we could do something that the citizens of Boston could be proud of.”

Tidwell said the time is right to push for change.

“I’m hoping that now that this is the time at the police department and the city is ready to do a little bit more,” she said.Play Video

The push to expand civilian review of police is not limited to Boston. Brian Corr, director of the Cambridge Police Review and Advisory Board and a national expert on community oversight of police, has been taking calls from around the country asking for help creating community oversight boards.

“Ultimately, what we’re doing is working to make things right,” he said. “It’s about having people who are not sworn law enforcement officers in the department looking at specific instances and broader trends in a police department or law enforcement agency.”

Corr, a board member and recent past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said some oversight boards review complaints of police misconduct. Others proactively look at policy. Many, including Cambridge’s, do both.

Brian Corr, a national expert on civilian oversight of police, has been fielding calls from around the country on the topic.

They need access to information, according to Corr, but there’s not just one way to get it.

Matthew Segal, legal director with the ACLU of Massachusetts said access as well as authority is key.

“Is the board going to have the power to investigate? Is the board going to have the power to subpoena took to require documents, to require testimony to be turned over? And is the board going to have any role in determining what happens to officers if they’re deemed to have done something wrong?” he said.

Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the scope of powers that an oversight panel has is a key to its success.

Athanasi Darviris, president of the Cambridge Police Patrol Officers Association, said the police union “feels the city and the department has a fair and impartial system in place.”

“As for a successful oversight board, it would have to be established with a group of diverse members. For example, retired law enforcement, retired or former district attorneys, members of the community, licensed social workers, nurses, and medical professionals,” she said. “These members can then listen to the concerns of its citizens, police officers working in the community and make educated recommendations based on training, laws, policy’s and procedures and the good of the community as a whole. Finally and most importantly the board members should be open to attending law enforcement training so they have a better knowledge of how police officers are trained, challenged, and educated.”

There are four community review boards in Massachusetts: Cambridge, Pittsfield, Springfield and Boston.

Whatever powers it has, Corr says a civilian review board won’t work well without a good relationship with the police department.

“We all have to come to the table as a community to make sure that we can have the best oversight possible in order to have the best law enforcement and policing that we can in our communities,” he said.

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