Boston city councilors and local advocates on Tuesday grappled with how to reform the city’s police department, wrestling with the fiscal and public safety implications of police union contracts, and imagining a civilian review board with investigative teeth, including subpoena powers, that exists outside the department.
”I don’t plan on spending any of our time questioning whether or not we need this, the fact of the matter is we know what we know,” said Councilor Julia Mejia of a stronger civilian review board during a virtual meeting of the council’s government operations committee. “The question is what are we going to do about it?”
Later on Tuesday, the council’s Ways and Means Committee discussed police union contracts, with advocates saying arbitration processes in such agreements that allow officers to appeal disciplinary punishments make it harder to hold them accountable.
Like Mejia, Councilor Andrea Campbell is a backer of a proposal that calls for the establishment of a civilian oversight panel with subpoena power that would investigate complaints about police, review internal affairs probes, and make disciplinary and policy recommendations.
“It is sad that it has taken the loss of George Floyd and many others to get to this moment,” said Campbell on Tuesday.
The proposed board would probe allegations including excessive use of force, abuse of authority, and unlawful arrests, stops, and searches, among other actions.
The board would also collect and publish the number of complaints it receives, along with demographic data, the number of use-of-force complaints against the department, and the amount of money the city spends in legal settlements involving Boston police, as well as other information.
Such data could be used to inform how to shift policies and practices to address and eliminate racial disparities in policing, Campbell said after the hearing.
“This legislation would be a big step for Boston in transforming a board that has been ineffective in providing police accountability," she said in a statement.
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.”
Earlier this year, Mayor Martin J. Walsh commissioned a task force, which held a series of public listening sessions and planned to offer a slate of solutions by mid-August. The group’s proposals are expected to include recommendations regarding the CO-OP board, which is housed within the Boston Police Department and does not have subpoena power.
Speaking at a City Hall news conference on Tuesday, Walsh said he expected the task force would share recommendations in coming days and noted that its review included a look at ways to strengthen the CO-OP board and would also consider whether the city should move to a different review system altogether.
Among those testifying Tuesday was Brian Corr, the executive director of the Cambridge Peace Commission and the immediate past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. He said it is important for an oversight board to be separate from a police department and have the ability to perform investigations and impose recommendations.
“Whether or not it’s true, many people don’t have trust that the police will investigate themselves without some outside oversight or agency,” he said.
Boston Police Sergeant Eddy Chrispin, who is the president of Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said he understands the need for reform in policing but added that those involved with a civilian review board like the one being proposed should understand how police perform their duties. He also thinks it is important for members of such a board to be impartial, saying such a board should not have members who have a disdain for police.
There are concerns among police about due process rights under a new board and what an officer’s appeal options would be, he said.
“We welcome reform," he said. "We want it to be fair and impartial.”
Campbell has said that the aim is to have a board that is “truly independent” from the Boston Police Department.
The proposed board would have 11 members, including mayoral and council appointees, and would have broader authority than the existing CO-OP, according to Campbell.
At Tuesday’s meeting, following a presentation from the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, said that New York was “light years ahead” of where Boston is when it comes to police accountability and oversight.
“We must implement immediate action,” he said.
The existing CO-OP process in Boston is confusing and has no teeth, he said.
“Just this morning, in anticipation of this hearing, I went to the CO-OP’s website and in the link that says ‘Click here to file a complaint,’ — the link is broken,” he said. “I mean, isn’t that so symbolic for the conversation we’re having today?”
At the later council hearing, councilors mulled what role union contracts would play in reform efforts. Councilor Kenzie Bok spoke to the importance of the agreements between the city and its police unions.
“Police contracts dictate the likely consequences for the use of deadly force and are therefore a matter of life and death, especially for Bostonians of color," she said.
Citing WCVB and Northeastern University, Campaign Zero, a group that is working to end police violence, stated that 72 percent of disciplinary actions taken against Boston police officers are overturned in arbitration.
“Arbitration is a huge problem in Boston and many cities,” said Campaign Zero cofounder Samuel Sinyangwe during the virtual hearing.
“It doesn’t have to be this way," said Sinyangwe. "There are cities that simply do it differently.”
Mallory Hanora, executive director of Families for Justice as Healing, an advocacy group that works to end the incarceration of women and girls, said the city’s police contracts serve the interest of the police, not Boston’s communities.
“It’s protecting officer pay, it’s shielding police from accountability,” she said.
Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said Boston police’s payroll increased by more than $125 million between 2011 and 2019, an increase that was driven by contract provisions either agreed to at the bargaining table or imposed by decisions of the state’s Joint Labor-Management Committee. Kocher said the City Council’s role in reviewing and approving — or rejecting — union contracts is key to Boston’s fiscal health. She also warned of hidden costs embedded in such contracts.
“The police patrolmen’s contract, for example, as written and implemented, lacks transparency and accountability, leading to a variety of hidden costs that continue to increase year over year,” she said.