Four years ago, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh called on a little-known civilian oversight board to explore new ways to keep tabs on the city’s police force, monitor misconduct, and recommend policy reforms.
In the wake of outrage over an unjust police killing in Ferguson, Mo., the Community Ombudsman Opportunity Panel noted the importance of its mission in its own blueprint for reform: “The city of Boston is not immune to the long-simmering frustration and mistrust of police.”
But today, again amid national uproar over the police killings of Black people, the oversight panel known as CO-OP has little to show for itself. The panel, which exists within the police department and has no subpoena powers, hasn’t issued a report in three years and went a year without meeting. Its membership dwindled at one point late last year to a single person.
Its impact? Barely negligible. Its reforms? Unknown.
The board’s failure has served as a flash point in a roiling debate over the accountability of law enforcement, with local advocates and officials calling for more stringent oversight of the Boston Police Department.
“I think folks have been frustrated for a long time and are now looking for action,” City Councilor Andrea Campbell said. “Now, the national conversation has clearly trickled down where residents in the thousands are demanding these reforms happen.”
Campbell said she has requested reviews of the CO-OP’s work from the Walsh administration but has received no response. She plans to soon introduce legislation to create, under city law, a new, independent board with more power to hold police officers accountable and with the authority to conduct its own investigations.
For too long, she said, calls for an overhaul of the CO-OP have gone unheeded.
“For many, justice is accountability,” she said. And the current oversight board “is ineffective in creating true accountability.”
A spokesman for Walsh said that the mayor has committed to a review of the oversight board but did not address the board’s history.
Walsh commissioned a task force in mid-June, chaired by former US attorney Wayne Budd, to consider an array of city reforms including possibly “strengthening Boston’s existing police review board.” The task force was charged with making recommendations within 60 days.
“I recognize there is room for improvement with how the board operates, which is why I have committed to adopting any changes proposed by the task force to strengthen the CO-OP Board and ensure their work is effective,” Walsh said in a statement Wednesday.
Calls for a more expansive board with increased powers have intensified in recent weeks. The Boston branch of the NAACP listed the creation of an empowered civilian review board atop its list of recommended police reforms. The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus called for similar action in its “10 Point Plan” for reforms.
What is clear, advocates say, is that any attempt to build community trust requires an independent board with true oversight over how the police department polices itself. There’s a big difference, they say, between the current, toothless ombudsman panel and an independent review board that operates outside police headquarters.
The CO-OP was created in 2007 under an executive order by then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino, more than a decade after a city commission proposed it.
The panel was set up to hear citizen appeals of misconduct complaints that are not sustained by the internal affairs division, though the complainant must file the appeal within 14 days; the CO-OP was also entitled to unilaterally review use-of-force cases, yet no such case was ever referred to it in its first decade. The panel cannot interview witnesses or conduct investigations, and it does not have subpoena power but must instead rely on department investigators. Panel members only conclude whether an investigation was thorough and fair. Each year, the panel can also review a small sample of all internal affairs cases, though it’s not clear how those specific cases are chosen.
It can take the internal affairs division years to complete their own reviews, leaving complainants so jaded — and distrustful — that they rarely care to continue the process, advocates said.
The 2015 review by newly appointed CO-OP members J. Larry Mayes, retired superior court judge Regina Quinlan, and attorney Natashia Tidwell called for a complete overhaul of the panel.
The trio suggested creating a Community Office of Police Accountability, led by an attorney as its executive director and reporting directly to the mayor. The office would have staff to process complaints, a specialist to conduct neighborhood outreach, as well as complaint analysts and a mediation specialist. A larger review board, with up to 11 members, would review and resolve complaints.
Mayes envisioned the office would cost less than $3 million a year.
Two years later, Walsh issued an executive order that fell far short of the recommendations. He increased the number of potential panel members from three to five. The order also increased the sampling of cases the CO-OP could review, to 20 percent of the internal affairs caseload. Still the panel had no subpoena powers, and the final decision on any case continues to rest with the police commissioner.
Today, it’s unclear how many cases the CO-OP has reviewed. It had not released a yearly report, as required by the mayor’s order, since 2017.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the mayor released a recent breakdown of cases and said the panel has reviewed three cases so far this year, and their outcomes are pending. Last year, the panel reviewed 42 cases, including 19 appeals and 23 sample cases; of those, six of the appeals cases were deemed to be handled fairly by internal affairs, the remainder are still pending.
In a recent interview, Mayes welcomed the increased pressure for reform.
“Ultimately, what people are trying to get at is they simply want to know that there’s a process in place where they can get to the truth of the matter, and they could be heard,” he said, adding that, “this is the opportunity before us right now, and we should take it and grab it.”
Mayes said he’s heard differing views of how the board could operate. Should it have subpoena powers, which could mean costly lawyers?
He suggests creating a digital complaint system — similar to the city’s 311 system for fielding quality of life complaints — to solicit reports of police misconduct. At its core, he said, the office should be independent, exist outside the police department, and be responsive to citizen complaints.
Advocates for reform said the lack of accountability within the current system only erodes credibility in the process.
“You need to have something that has real teeth,” said Howard Friedman, a Boston-based civil rights attorney. “There hasn’t been that public pressure to do that. The danger is that, as time goes by, the reforms they say they will implement don’t end up getting implemented.”
Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said that the recent protests over police abuses have ignited a movement for reform and the creation of a civilian review board — but only an independent board with true investigative powers — could go a long way toward that effort.
“This is certainly a unique opportunity to overhaul police practices, to hold police accountable, to transform the institution of policing,” he said. “These are the things people are demanding and have been demanding for a while.”