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Boston City Council considers police review board with subpoena power

Boston City Hall.
Boston City Hall.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/file

With calls for police reform continuing, Boston city councilors are considering establishing a civilian police oversight board with subpoena power that would investigate complaints about police, review internal affairs probes, and make disciplinary and policy recommendations.

Oversight from the board would serve to promote professionalism of Boston police and enhance community relations, according to backers of the proposal.

The board would replace the current Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, or CO-OP, which sponsors of the new proposal said has been ineffective in terms of oversight and accountability “partly due to limited resources, authority, and enforcement powers.”

“Boston is not immune or exempt from incidents of excessive force, misconduct, or racism,” said Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, one of the sponsors of the ordinance, at Wednesday’s council meeting, which was conducted virtually.

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Campbell said the proposal was the result of researching police review boards from around the country, including ones in Atlanta, Oakland, and New York.

Under her measure, such a board would be able to receive, process, and investigate complaints against officers, review internal affairs probes, make recommendations regarding public policy and disciplinary action, and collect and publish data regarding complaints, police stops, arrests, and use of force.

The aim, said Campbell, is to have a board that is “truly independent” from the Boston Police Department.

The proposed board would have 11 members and include mayoral and council appointees and would have broader authority than the existing CO-OP, including subpoena power, said Campbell.

“The reality is there’s very few jobs that allow people to use force on our residents, on our constituents,” said Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, a sponsor of the proposal. “The reality is when you have that kind of responsibility, and that kind of power, a certain level of oversight and standards [is] required.”

At the council meeting, the proposed civilian review board ordinance was referred to the body’s government operations committee.

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That proposal comes amid broad calls to substantially change law enforcement policies and resources. Last month, the council passed a budget that included a $12 million reduction to the Boston police overtime budget, a cut that some advocates and residents thought did not go far enough.

In recent weeks, Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared racism a public health crisis in Boston and announced the formation of the Boston Police Reform Task Force to review police use-of-force policies and other equity issues in the Boston Police Department.

Among those issues are oversight of police misconduct. That newly-appointed group solicited input from the public regarding the existing police review panel during a Wednesday afternoon session.

The council on Wednesday also talked about racial profiling in Boston police encounters that law enforcement officials refer to as field interrogation and observations, or FIOs.

According to a recent report referenced by councilors in a hearing order, Black people accounted for 69 percent of Boston police FIO stops last year, despite comprising about a quarter of the city’s population. White people, on the other hand, accounted for about 25 percent of the stops despite comprising about 44 percent of Boston’s population, according to the order.

“We saw some racial disparities that were incredibly troubling,” said Councilor Matt O’Malley.

The order called for a hearing to discuss “the racial disparities found in the field interrogation and observation data from the Boston Police Department, and ways to eliminate racial profiling in policing and build more trust and better relationships between communities of color and the Boston Police Department.” That measure was referred to the council’s committee on public safety and criminal justice.

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In other business, the city council is mulling the need for an increase to the number of public housing units in the city.

Federal law limits the number of public housing units that could receive capital and operating subsidies from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to a hearing order from City Councilor Kenzie Bok.

Thanks to redevelopment that reduced the density of Boston’s public housing stock, the city is below the limit.

That means that Boston can build, buy, or certify more than 2,400 public housing units that would receive HUD capital and operating subsidies -- “thereby,’' read Bok’s order, “taking advantage of an untapped federal resource to increase our number of permanent deeply affordable units.”


Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.