Police reform — the real police reform that holds officers accountable for their conduct and does so in the clear light of day — can’t come soon enough.
Look no further than the case of Boston Police Sergeant Clifton McHale — a twisted tale of misconduct handled behind closed doors and the slap-on-the-wrist justice that follows.
Boston can do better. Boston must do better. And there’s not a moment to lose for both the city and the state panels set up to implement those overdue reforms aimed at bringing light to this opaque process and systemic change in the way errant officers are dealt with.
The most disturbing thing about this particular case isn’t just that a Boston Police officer would think it’s cool to brag to fellow officers about intentionally mowing down protesters — whether he did or didn’t — but that nearly everything the public knows about this case originally came from sources other than the Boston Police Department or city officials.
That, in the end, does more to create public distrust of the department than the paltry eight-day suspension meted out to McHale for “conducting unbecoming an officer.”
The case begins the night of May 31, 2020, during the first of what would become a summer of protests spurred by the police killing of George Floyd on a Minneapolis street. McHale, the son of a former Boston Police deputy superintendent, who joined the force in 1997, was in an unmarked cruiser in the thick of things that night.
He was caught on another officer’s body camera footage saying, “I got to [expletive] Tremont and Park,” he says in the video. “And I was in the middle of the [expletive] street. So then I had to keep coming. I was [expletive] hitting people with the car.”
Protesters “were all [expletive] around,” he is heard saying.
The only reason that video became public last December was because Carlton Williams, an lawyer representing some of the protesters who were arrested that night, acquired and then released a trove of footage to The Appeal, an online news outlet.
At the time the department and then-Mayor Marty Walsh refused to identify McHale as the officer in question.
Last May — nearly a year after the original incident — police officials confirmed to members of the Boston City Council during budget hearings that the investigation into McHale’s conduct was ongoing and that he had been confined to desk duty while it was taking place.
His reinstatement was first reported last Thursday in an on-line newsletter written by Eoin Higgins, who also reported the original video story.
It wasn’t until Friday night that the BPD released its internal affairs report and confirmed McHale’s brief suspension. The report, citing a review of video from various sources — including social media and traffic cameras — found McHale didn’t actually strike anyone and that he eventually abandoned his vehicle on Winter Street.
As Williams put it to a Globe reporter, “It’s still a felony to try to hit people with your car, whether you do or not.”
It’s McHale’s mind-set that is disturbing.
“It’s distinctly the opposite of what he’s supposed to be doing,” Williams added. “That doesn’t seem OK.”
And there’s McHale’s history — a 2005 charge of sexually assaulting an intoxicated woman while in uniform (on a police detail at a downtown bar) in a police vehicle. That offense, while not criminally prosecuted, netted McHale a one-year suspension without pay. He insisted the sex was consensual.
The state’s new police reform law considers such incidents so serious that a special section of the law deems any sexual assault on a person “in the custody or control of such law enforcement officer” is punishable with prison time and anyone in custody “shall be deemed incapable of consent to contact of a sexual nature with a law enforcement officer.”
For the moment Clifton McHale is the beneficiary of exquisitely good timing.
Boston is little more than a month away from swearing in its next mayor, who will determine whether the new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency means what its title implies or is yet another paper tiger set up so administrations can dodge responsibility.
In the meantime Councilor Andrea Campbell’s idea of having that office hire an outside investigator — even as it is still in the process of staffing up — is a good one.
At the state level the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission is also just getting off the ground with the hiring last month of an executive director. It would ultimately be able to reprimand or decertify officers who abuse their authority.
For now, police reform remains in a limbo of good intentions meeting a reality that cannot wait forever for change. The McHale case is proof of that.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.