The Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department revealed deeply ingrained racial biases and policies that treated Ferguson’s African-American community as an ATM machine — a source of revenue for the city to be fined and harassed for minor offenses. The findings provided yet another damning look at the St. Louis suburb, and further inflamed tension between the community and law enforcement. In the latest incident, two police officers were shot this week during a protest, an outrageous act that only makes healing in the community less likely. But while Ferguson has been held under a microscope, it’s impossible to pretend that some of the strife couldn’t occur in other places, too. The remedies the DOJ report recommended for the Ferguson police force should apply across the country. The police, including Boston’s, need more citizen involvement, internal policing, and real efforts to stamp out bigoted attitudes.
It took the death of Michael Brown, race riots, and massive media attention to focus the Justice Department’s attention on Ferguson. The investigation found that African-Americans are disproportionately targeted for arrests, tickets, and use of force. It also found that such disparity was due to unlawful bias and not a result of black residents committing more crime. The report also produced overwhelming evidence of a culture of racial bias, and described in detail many disturbing incidents. It singled out racist e-mail communications offensively mocking blacks and other minorities.
Fortunately, President Obama and other federal officials are beginning to take steps to address discriminatory police practices and reduce mistrust in minority communities. Obama appointed a task force that released an interim report last week that includes about 60 recommendations. It calls for independent probes of police-involved fatal shootings; encourages police to focus on de-escalating situations, rather than drawing weapons before pursuing other less lethal options; and recommends launching a federal initiative to diversify police departments to better reflect the communities they serve.
Legislators in many states have already filed a host of bills with similar aims. In Massachusetts, for example, state Representative Mary Keefe and state Senator Patricia Jehlen recently introduced legislation that would require data collection involving law enforcement officers’ use of weapons, including Tasers, and provide for impartial judicial investigations of all officer-involved deaths.
In Boston, a good place for reform to start would be the city’s Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel. The three-member independent board, established by Mayor Menino in 2007, is the only civilian mechanism to keep tabs on police misconduct. The panel, however, is only empowered to review police internal investigations that have been completed but appealed by complainants, and other randomly selected internal affairs cases. In 2012, the panel reviewed 30 internal investigations, and found that only four were not investigated in a manner that was fair and thorough.
Boston’s CO-OP is hardly sufficient; the panel has no subpoena powers, and civilians can’t initiate a complaint directly with the board. It needs teeth. It’s the perfect time for Mayor Walsh, who named new members to the panel last month, to strengthen this board. How else can Boston residents feel confident that police will be held responsible in the case of excessive force?
The racist atmosphere tolerated at the Ferguson police may seem extreme, but there are disturbing signs of intolerance closer to home. Pax Centurion, a newsletter published by the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, has long been known for its offensive rhetoric. Menino called it “garbage,” while former Police Commissioner Ed Davis said that the union’s publication was not representative of today’s officer. But Pax Centurion’s editor, James Carnell, has been allowed to continue running the newsletter, despite a campaign urging him to resign in 2012.
Obviously, Davis was right — this publication doesn’t speak for all officers. But change must come from the ranks. Members of the BPPA should demand a publication that truly reflects the average officer. In Seattle, for example, current police chief and former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole announced new public comments guidelines for Seattle cops after an officer posted on Facebook that social justice is “racist” and referred to Mexico as a third-world cesspool. Notably, the president of Seattle’s police union has also condemned such commentary from cops. Boston’s civic and union leadership need to show at least as much leadership in rooting out a culture that winks at racism and poisons public trust in the police.