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Calling for accountability, Campbell proposes police oversight board

Boston City Council member aAndrea Campbell.
Boston City Council member aAndrea Campbell.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

A new, empowered Civilian Review Board could play a stronger role in investigating police misconduct and recommending disciplinary action under a City Council proposal that was crafted in response to calls for greater accountability of police officers.

Under the proposal, an 11-member board would replace the little-known Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel that, a Boston Globe review found, has provided little oversight of police and is hamstrung by a lack of autonomy. City Councilor Andrea Campbell plans to introduce the proposed city ordinance on Tuesday, saying the recent protests over police abuses demonstrate the need for reform. The City Council and Mayor Martin J. Walsh would need to approve Campbell’s proposed ordinance.

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“If not now, then when?” Campbell said in an interview. “This is a critical time. Our residents are demanding we create not only an office that is truly independent and effective but one that holds our officers accountable.”

A spokeswoman for Walsh said the mayor will review the proposal, though she noted that he has already commissioned a task force — led by Wayne Budd, a former US attorney — to look at an array of reforms to policing, including the creation of an effective civilian oversight board. The task force, commissioned in mid-June, is slated to deliver a report in two months.

“We all agree now is the time for urgent action to bring about the systemic change we need to create a more just and equitable society, and bring greater transparency to our processes,” Walsh said in a statement. “I welcome Councilor Campbell’s partnership in the work underway to ensure our institutions are best serving the people of Boston everyday.”

The proposal mirrors several never-enacted recommendations offered by a commission four years ago that would have strengthened the existing oversight panel, known as the CO-OP.

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First created in 2007, the CO-OP was seen as having little reach even at the time, the result of several limiting factors: All initial complaints of police misconduct are reviewed by the Police Department’s internal affairs division. Though the CO-OP can hear citizen appeals of cases, those appeals must be filed within two weeks. And while the CO-OP can review a sample of all internal affairs cases, it’s unclear how those sample cases are selected. The panel also has the power to review cases of extreme police force resulting in injury — but no such case was referred to it in its first decade.

Four years ago, amid outrage over an unjust police killing in Ferguson, Mo., that led to reflections of police accountability nationwide, Walsh commissioned a review of the CO-OP.

At the time, CO-OP members recommended a complete overhaul including the creation of a Community Office of Police Accountability, complete with a staff that would process and analyze complaints and conduct neighborhood outreach. The office would be led by an attorney as its executive director, and would report to an 11-member board that would operate independent of the police department.

Instead, Walsh issued a 2017 executive order that fell short of those recommendations, expanding the number of CO-OP members from three to five, and increasing the sample size of cases the panel can review to up to 20 percent of the internal affairs caseload.

Little is known about the panel’s work in the years since. The panel has not published an annual report, as required by the mayor’s order, since 2017. Its recent June meeting was its first in more than a year; the previous meeting, in March 2019, was a conference call with police representatives.

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Campbell’s proposal would match the recommendations set out by CO-OP members four years ago and would create a board with a budget and staff that would operate independent of police, from an office outside police headquarters, where the CO-OP is currently located.

The new board would have subpoena power, and the authority to investigate all allegations of police misconduct, and to make recommendations. Though the police commissioner would still have final say over disciplinary measures, the board would set out standards for the commissioner to follow.

Natashia Tidwell, a former CO-OP member who worked on the recommendations, said the goal was to examine what a true civilian board could look like.

”I think we put forth our report, our recommendations, to the mayor and I’m glad to see there’s movement, hopefully we’ll see some change,” Tidwell said.

Campbell said the board would legally be limited in handing out any discipline, because the city’s collective bargaining agreements with police unions give that power to the police commissioner. But she said the board would be empowered to recommend standards for the commissioner to follow in making any decisions.

In addition, she said, the board would have the power to collect and publicize all data on complaints of use of force, abuse of power, and other police misconduct, and to publicize its own review of those cases.

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“The current oversight board is ineffective in creating true accountability,” Campbell said. “Establishing a Civilian Review Board independent from the Police Department, with the authority and resources to review complaints, conduct investigations, and recommend action, including disciplinary action, will bring more accountability and transparency to this system and justice for Bostonians.”

City Councilor Julia Mejia, who is cosponsoring the legislation, added, “Accountability cannot be a term we just throw around and pat ourselves on the back for using.

“We need to create pathways for the people and to make our voices heard when it comes to injustices in our system. It’s time for Boston to join cities across the country in creating a Civilian Review Board.”


Milton J. Valencia can be reached at milton.valencia@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @miltonvalencia.