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Behind the shield

For Boston police officers accused of crimes, legal troubles tend to just melt away

The aftermath of a crash Dec 11, 2013, in Rockland that sent Danielle Coughlin to intensive care.
The aftermath of a crash Dec 11, 2013, in Rockland that sent Danielle Coughlin to intensive care.

Second in an occasional series. Read part one.

Danielle Coughlin lay in the intensive care unit at South Shore Hospital the day after the crash and struggled to understand what was going on. Each breath shot bolts of pain through her chest.

The 35-year-old remembered driving home to Rockland from her job as a nurse just before midnight on Dec. 11, 2013. Slowing down to turn into her driveway. Watching a line of cars head toward her from a nearby golf club. Wondering at the late hour. She didn’t even see the black Honda veer into her lane and hit her.

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Her head smashed the windshield so hard the glass broke. She blacked out. The man who drove into her had alcohol on his breath and was slurring his words, according to hospital records.

Now, Coughlin was in bed with a broken sternum, a lacerated liver, and a head wound, and a nurse was asking if she knew anyone in the Boston Police Department. No, Coughlin said. Why?

“Someone just called to check on you,” the nurse told her, Coughlin recalled. “To make sure you were OK.”

It was the first clue that this would not be a standard drunk driving investigation.

The man who hit Coughlin was Robert Tully, a longtime Boston police detective driving an unmarked department car. Hospital records documented his clear intoxication: almost three hours after the accident, his blood alcohol level was still nearly two and a half times the legal limit.

But local police say they just didn’t notice. Instead, every agency involved in the crash or its aftermath — the Rockland police, the Boston police, and lawyers from Boston City Hall — stepped in to protect him. Tully would suffer no consequences.

A Globe investigation found that the way the badge shielded Tully is often the way it works in the Boston Police Department. Boston police officers accused of crimes over the last decade have encountered a kinder, gentler justice system than the one civilians must navigate — a system where justice takes a back seat to protecting officers. Allegations that would likely get anyone else arrested disappear into drawn-out internal affairs investigations that rarely end with criminal charges or firing, even when the department concludes that officers broke the law.

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Indeed, the Globe found dozens of officers whose legal problems just melted away.

Officers whom the department found had stolen, committed fraud, attacked co-workers, or drew guns on their colleagues were allowed to quietly resign or retire without facing charges. Officers who attacked family members, threatened civilians, and drunkenly crashed their cars remain on the force today. And officers who were prosecuted — for stealing and laundering money from the evidence room, for lying to federal officials, for joining a shoplifting ring — avoided jail time and sometimes saved pensions worth hundreds of thousands of dollars or more by agreeing to leave the force.

Police loyalties run deep and extend beyond the city’s boundaries, and on that December night in 2013, the coverup began right away.

Rockland Police did not check on Tully’s blood alcohol test results, take photographs, or conduct follow-up interviews. They say they didn’t think it was necessary. And they ignored pleas from Coughlin’s father and closed the case immediately, issuing just a “marked lanes” traffic citation to Tully.

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The Boston Police Department was alerted by Rockland officers the night of the crash, but didn’t open an internal affairs investigation. Boston police do not require officers to be drug- or alcohol-tested after department car crashes, but do require that a superior investigate. Here, the city sent a sergeant detective to pick up Tully’s belongings the next day. That supervisor apparently asked very few questions — later, he would say he didn’t even know where Tully was coming from or going to. Still, though he acknowledged he had not been a witness to the accident, he swore in legal documents under the pains and penalties of perjury that Tully had been driving “with reasonable care.”

Boston City Hall took it further. When Coughlin tried to sue Tully, the city said she couldn’t. City lawyers insisted — falsely — that Tully had been acting “in the scope of his employment” at the time of the crash, a claim they said protected him personally from a lawsuit. But payroll records obtained by the Globe showed that Tully had been off duty for nearly eight hours when he rammed Coughlin’s car. An internal Boston police report filed before the suit said he was not on assignment. And the crash occurred just outside a golf club with a bar where Tully was a member, and less than four miles from his home.

“If someone else was in the car, the whole scenario would have been different,” said Coughlin, who missed three months of work and still suffers from chest pain and anxiety while driving. “But because it was a policeman, they just brushed it under the rug. ‘Sorry about the scar on your face that you’ll have forever, but maybe your hair will cover it up.’”

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***

Robert Tully.
Robert Tully.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Boston police, Boston City Hall, and Rockland police all denied that they covered up Tully’s conduct, and pointed fingers at each other and Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz’s office, which in turn denied involvement and refused to answer questions. City Hall said that the Rockland police alone handled the crash, and their reports don’t mention alcohol. Tully declined to comment through an attorney.

Apprised of the Globe’s findings, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the Boston Police Department said officers have a duty to act with honesty and integrity, and that any wrongdoing would be thoroughly and aggressively investigated.

“It should go without saying that the law must apply equally to all people,” said Walsh in a written statement. “As Mayor, I will not tolerate misconduct at our police department, and am taking the action needed to enact systemic reforms to increase transparency and accountability at every level.”

The Rockland crash occurred weeks before Walsh took office, but his administration oversaw the legal maneuvering.

Police Commissioner William Gross said in a written statement that officers who break the law are not representative of the rest of the department.

“Creating trust in our communities and keeping them safe is our first priority, and I hold our officers to the highest standards,” he said. Gross was a Boston police superintendent at the time of the crash and became commissioner in 2018.

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Neither Walsh nor Gross agreed to interviews requested by the Globe.

Officers accused of crimes typically face an internal charge of “conformance to laws,” which can cover anything from making an illegal U-turn to serious acts of violence. The Globe’s analysis determined that officers are rarely found at fault in such cases: Over the last decade, investigators have sustained only about a third of such allegations.

But even when the department does sustain allegations of law-breaking against officers, punishments internally are often mild. Offending officers are almost never fired. In the few instances when the department takes action and fires an officer, it can get overruled by arbiters and the state Civil Service Commission. Records show this happened in three of the six firings in the last decade.

When potential crimes occur within the city of Boston, police are supposed to refer them to the Suffolk district attorney’s office, though records show this didn’t happen in at least four instances in recent years.

It is a pattern that outrages Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins. She told the Globe she does not have faith in the police department’s ability to investigate its own. The Globe’s findings, based on scores of court records, dozens of interviews, and a decade’s worth of internal documents, “clearly displayed” special treatment for officers, she said.

In the past, Suffolk prosecutors have sometimes chosen not to prosecute cases the police did bring them, something Rollins said her office will handle differently.

“The people of Suffolk County deserve to know that the public officials they rely on for their safety are truly invested in it,” Rollins said in a statement. “Anything less is a betrayal of their trust and our obligation to serve.”

Boston police say they take any alleged crimes extremely seriously and refer crimes for prosecution to the DA and other law enforcement agencies, which are responsible for prosecuting involved officers. On Friday, after the Globe shared its findings, the department said Commissioner Gross has directed the Bureau of Professional Standards to “review the small number of conformance to laws cases that have not been referred to the DA, and review again whether they should be referred for prosecution.”

The department pledged that moving forward, investigators will communicate and meet regularly with prosecutors about officers accused of breaking the law.

The kinds of cases that stir Rollins’s distrust are rife in the police internal affairs files reviewed by the Globe.

There’s Officer Patricia McGoldrick, who drew her weapon on another police officer in 2015 in response to a crack about her ex-husband. Her attorney was frank during civil service proceedings: McGoldrick believed that unless she resigned, she was in “criminal jeopardy with the consequence of losing her retirement rights.”

The department denied threatening her with criminal charges or trying to coerce her resignation, and McGoldrick couldn’t prove otherwise.

But in the end, she resigned, wasn’t charged, and kept her pension of about $50,000 a year.

Sergeant Detective John Boyle, spokesman for Boston police, said in a statement that the department can’t stop officers under investigation from resigning, nor does it have jurisdiction over which cases are prosecuted. In an interview, McGoldrick downplayed her offense, saying she lifted the gun out of her holster but never raised it or pointed it, immediately regretted even going that far, and felt misled by her union lawyer and singled out by the department.

Other officers have similarly left the force while under investigation for criminal acts for which they were never charged: Frederick Marzano, whom the BPD found had tackled and repeatedly pointed his gun at a fellow officer; Robert Warren, captured on video regularly shoplifting juice from a gas station; William Robertson and Robert Dwan, caught committing overtime fraud; and Royce Veal and Anthony Handleman-Smith, who secretly freed a friend who had been arrested from a cruiser and promised to leave the force in exchange for a nonprosecution agreement. In a phone call with a reporter, Warren denied being a shoplifter and said a clerk gave him the juice; the rest of the officers declined to comment or could not be reached.

“The system is biased in favor of police officers at every step,” said civil rights attorney Howard Friedman, who has tried many cases against the Boston police. “They’re much less likely to be charged with a crime. If they’re charged with a crime, they’re less likely to be found guilty; and if they are found guilty, they’re more likely to receive a favorable plea deal.”

Read more about the Boston Police Department from our investigative team

***

Many officers who get in trouble don’t even have to leave their jobs to escape consequences.

Take Officer Shaun McBrien, who in May 2015 allegedly threatened two men with his gun outside a Quincy bar, and shoved one of them, after they confronted him while he urinated in public. When Quincy police arrived, a drunk McBrien taunted them and refused to follow commands to drop his weapon, according to a police report. An officer had to tackle and kick him to disarm him and keep him from reaching for his gun. Quincy police called Boston police, who said they would come pick McBrien up. “No charges filed at this time,” the Quincy report reads. “Boston Police to handle.”

And Boston police did — in their own way. Four years later, McBrien received a 15-day suspension, of which he was only required to serve 10 days.

A Boston police spokesman said internal affairs investigators later asked the Norfolk district attorney’s office if they planned to charge McBrien, but a Norfolk spokesman said Quincy police never brought them charges to pursue. Quincy police didn’t respond to requests for comment.

McBrien remains on the force today. He declined through the department to speak to the Globe.

Another officer currently on patrol, Joslin Thomas, was on duty in July 2013 when he grabbed a Hyde Park Tedeschi clerk by the throat, shoved him into a rack of lottery tickets, and threatened to hurt him. Thomas allegedly believed the clerk had made a comment about him talking to a woman. Store security video recorded the assault, an employee reported the incident to police, and another on duty officer witnessed the incident but didn’t intervene. Still, it took almost 10 months for the department to bring charges. Although Thomas admitted what he had done, his criminal case was eventually dismissed. Internally, the department suspended him for a year, though only required him to serve six months of the punishment. Thomas declined through the department to comment.

Ten officers on the force today have been found by the internal affairs department to have committed acts of domestic or sexual violence in the past 10 years. The department declined to discuss the cases, citing privacy laws that protect victims of domestic or sexual violence; the Globe was able to determine that at least eight of these instances appear to be domestic, not sexual, offenses.

Incidents involving vehicles are also common. Three officers crashed their cars while allegedly driving drunk. Another took an off-duty joyride in a cruiser with lights and sirens blaring last summer, and plowed into a woman driving through a Mattapan intersection, sending them both to the hospital. Like Tully, that officer escaped with no criminal charges. He remains on the force, though he is currently serving a one-year suspension.

Other current officers were found to have been careless with their guns, gotten into physical fights, or, in one case, repeatedly sexually harassed a colleague.

Rollins’s office said she was reviewing several of the cases the Globe found that her office had not been informed of.

“When a law enforcement officer breaks a law, all participants in the system — and the public — should be aware of that,” she said.

***

Even when officers do leave the force because of their criminal conduct, they are often able to depart on their own terms. The Globe found five officers who were convicted of or admitted to serious criminal charges in superior or federal court who were not fired. Instead, they were able to relinquish their badges in hopes of leniency in sentencing.

Officer Joseph Nee, for example, stole more than $1,000 confiscated after a bank robbery from the department evidence room, and then laundered it through the slot machines and ticket redemption kiosks at the Plainridge Park Casino in 2017. He admitted in court to his conduct.

Cops convicted of crimes relating to their jobs — crimes like stealing money from the evidence room — can lose their pensions under state law. But Nee caught a lucky break. The department hadn’t fired him, so he had a chip to bargain with.

He bartered the job he used to commit his crime for a deal from the judge that would keep him out of jail and save his pension. He would resign and perform community service in exchange for five years of probation, with the promise of a dismissal. The 47-year-old’s taxpayer-funded pension checks, about $25,800 each year, will continue for life. Nee declined to comment.

Federal and state prosecutors say they do not trade jail time for resignation. But resignation sometimes serves the public interest, they say, by getting problem cops off the streets, and it’s common practice for professions like accountants and lawyers.

But it’s not available to everyone.

“Joe Schmoe, who gets picked up on an OUI, who agrees to leave his job at Home Depot, does he have the same kind of leverage as police officers have in seeking a resolution to his criminal case? The answer is no,” said former Boston police lieutenant Tom Nolan, who once worked in internal investigations and now teaches criminology and criminal justice at Emmanuel College. “Is it fair? I think there are inequalities that are built into the criminal justice process across the board.”

***

The poster boy for the special treatment Nolan refers to just might be Robert Tully, the detective who slammed into Danielle Coughlin’s Toyota just before Christmas in 2013, sending them both to the hospital.

As Coughlin lay in the ICU, her father, Bob Coughlin, who has lived in Rockland nearly 60 years, began hearing from friends in town that Tully had been drinking. He repeatedly contacted the Rockland Police Department to tell them, and asked for a copy of the toxicology report, only to be told that it hadn’t been collected from the hospital because it wasn’t necessary, he said.

That didn’t make sense, he thought. He had pictures of the crash showing the spiderweb of cracks his daughter’s head left in the windshield. Why wasn’t anyone investigating?

“You’ve got two vehicles totaled, you’ve got two people hospitalized,” Coughlin said. “It was not a minor accident.”

Rockland police Chief John Llewellyn told the Globe his officers handled the crash exactly right. Crossing the center line, he said, can be “an indicator” of intoxication, but the responding officers did not notice any smell of alcohol or slurred speech. He said a doctor might notice those things in an exam room, but they are easier to miss in the open air at an accident scene. No other emergency workers raised questions either, he said.

Llewellyn acknowledged that Bob Coughlin asked his office to pursue toxicology reports, but said police do not have that authority. He said Cruz, the Plymouth district attorney, could do that, but said that no one from his department ever contacted the DA.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s settled,” Llewellyn said. “I believe [the responding officer] did it appropriately. He did it by the book. He’s an honest, caring, compassionate police officer.”

Bob Coughlin contacted Cruz himself, Coughlin said, and got nothing. He called former attorney general Martha Coakley’s office, but they didn’t take the case.

Tully, a 36-year veteran of the department, sailed on. He went back to work in January of 2014 and retired in July of 2014, about seven months after the crash. He never faced criminal charges — which was fortuitous, considering that a drunk driving conviction in a city car could have cost Tully his pension of about $70,000 a year for life.

Danielle Coughlin hired an attorney and filed a civil suit against Tully and the city of Boston in early 2015, but ran into a roadblock with city lawyers who claimed that Tully had been working at the hour of the crash.

In an e-mail to the Globe, the city said it made that assertion “based on the information that was available to the Law Department” at the time, but declined to provide specifics.

Coughlin dismissed her civil suit naming Tully, and refiled in July of 2015, naming only the city of Boston as a defendant. During discovery, she subpoenaed Tully’s hospital records from the night of the crash.

The documents proved that Coughlin and her father had been right all along.

“Patient is intoxicated,” the report read. “Positive ethanol halitosis slightly slurred speech. … Patient said he had 3 beers earlier but does not feel intoxicated.”

His blood alcohol level, taken almost three hours after the crash, was two and a half times the legal limit.

But it was too late for the hospital records to help her case. The city filed a new motion claiming that since Tully was intoxicated, he couldn’t have been working after all, and the city could not be liable for his actions. There is no evidence that either the city or the department notified the Plymouth district attorney that Tully was drunk.

The two former city attorneys who handled the case, Shane P. Early and Jacob Goodelman, did not respond to requests for comment.

During a deposition, Tully refused to answer questions about whether he was working or drinking, instead invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination — 44 times in all.

The city settled the suit with Coughlin for $45,000. She brought a third lawsuit, this one in Plymouth County against Tully, claiming that he, in part through one of the city lawyers, had committed fraud upon the court, but a judge ruled against her. Exhausted, she dropped the matter completely.

After paying her medical bills and her lawyer and buying a new car, Coughlin took home about $12,000 from the settled lawsuit. Since he left the force, Tully has collected more than $430,000 in pension checks.

Today, Coughlin worries that her lingering chest pain will force her to retire early from nursing, a job she loves. She still gets anxious behind the wheel of her car. She doesn’t trust the police anymore.

Early this year, she got a letter from the Boston Police Department, informing her they had finally concluded, internally, that Tully was drinking and off duty the night of the crash. The department hadn’t opened an internal affairs investigation until 2016 — two years after Tully retired. It took three years to complete.

For a moment, Coughlin thought this meant she would get justice. But she knows it’s too late.

“If roles were reversed, I would have lost my brand new house. I would have lost my job as a nurse,” she said. “And he gets to walk free.”

Read more about the Boston Police Department from our investigative team


Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @evanmallen. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.