Almost a year after Boston’s new, independent police watchdog gained the ability to process civilian complaints about officer misconduct, only a handful have made it through the intake process, drawing sharp criticism from some advocates who worry the organization is not operating as designed.
Since the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, or OPAT, was established in early May last year, five complaints of officer misconduct have gone through the organization’s intake process. All of those cases are still pending, meaning the organization has yet to make any recommendations. An additional 10 complaints were lodged but have yet to go through the intake process.
For some advocates, those numbers suggest the organization is falling short of its mission — to investigate complaints of police misconduct in a city of 700,000 — and that more needs to be done to ensure the new watchdog is not a toothless bureaucracy that quietly accepts the status quo.
But the agency’s director says that the last year “has helped us start to lay the foundation to ensure transparency and accountability within the Boston Police Department.” One city councilor suggests it will take time for the community to trust the new office. And a top police union official says the low number is indicative of the force’s high level of professionalism.
Jamarhl Crawford, who served on the task force that recommended OPAT to then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh, is among the critics. He described the new organization as being “very lackluster in its execution.” Calling the number of cases OPAT has processed thus far “disappointing,” Crawford said, “It speaks to the fact that they didn’t understand the charge from the beginning.”
“It has been, you know, certainly not what we envisioned or intended,” said Crawford, a local police reform advocate.
However, Joseph D. Feaster Jr., another police reform task force member, gave a more generous assessment of OPAT’s performance. He said he was willing to give the city officials the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging that OPAT started to form in earnest under an acting mayor last year and that Michelle Wu just became mayor in November.
”I will give them a passing grade,” he said.
But Feaster did say, “Would I have hoped for a greater number of resolutions? Absolutely.”
OPAT fields and reviews complaints from the public about law enforcement officers and has subpoena power to investigate police affairs. It operates independently of the Police Department, which was crucial for those who supported its creation. The agency was charged with monitoring police and community relations, reviewing Police Department policies, and encouraging accountability and transparency within the department.
Two boards fall under OPAT: a nine-member Civilian Review Board and five-member Internal Affairs Oversight Panel. Those two boards only became fully staffed this January, seven months after they were created. The umbrella organization, which has a proposed $1.4 million budget for next fiscal year, provides research and administrative support to those boards.
Under the ordinance that created OPAT, the agency’s staff is charged with reviewing and classifying each complaint and making recommendations, which can include dismissal, referral for mediation, or referrals to either of the two boards. The Civilian Review Board is charged with reviewing and investigating certain complaints against BPD. True to its name, the Internal Affairs Oversight Panel is tasked with providing external oversight for the department’s internal probes, to help ensure they are thorough and fair.
OPAT’s executive director, Stephanie L. Everett, a Mattapan attorney, started in her role on May 3. OPAT has had the ability to receive complaints since that date, according to Wu’s office.
Everett said in a statement, “Now that the two boards are fully seated and the board members have received the required training, we are looking forward to working with the community to continue our office’s important work.”
A city dashboard offers a brief summary of the five complaints that have made it through the intake process. One complainant alleged two officers improperly served a warrant. Another person said an officer vandalized a car belonging to a relative. A third alleged an assault by an officer. Another said police mistakenly responded to their home multiple times. Lastly, someone alleged an officer used excessive force and entered a home without a warrant. The dashboard does not identify the officers.
Of the five, three of the complaining parties were white and two were Black. All were women. The complaints came from across the city: Dorchester, South Boston, the North End, Roxbury, and Mission Hill.
Michael Cox, executive director of Black and Pink Massachusetts, a prison abolition advocacy group, said Friday he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the low number of OPAT cases that are pending. He thought it was a reflection of OPAT’s leadership. For him, it begged the question whether true police reform is possible.
“Or do we want to be shrinking the scope of budgets as a different method of controlling police?” he asked. “It goes back to the defund conversation.”
He added, “You can create anything you want, if there’s no enforcement, no accountability attached to it, it’s just useless.”
In a statement, Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said the “low number of complaints is certainly indicative of what I have been saying all along, that the men and women of the BPPA answering the calls for service are some of the most professional officers in the nation.”
“And while no [department] is perfect, we’re incredibly proud of the work being done by our members every single day,” he said.
Calderone added that “when there is a complaint, and we fully expect there will be because complaints come in when officers are doing their jobs, we will continue to demand that our members be treated fairly and equitably against any allegations.”
Councilor Julia Mejia, who is known as a supporter of police reform in the city, said in a statement that since Everett was appointed to lead OPAT, “we have seen how this new office has begun establishing itself as a place where people can go for justice and accountability.”
“One of the biggest challenges we have ahead of us is working with the community to ensure that OPAT is worthy of the community’s trust,” Mejia said.
City authorities, she said, are unpacking “decades of abuse and mistrust in the system, and it is going to take time to make people feel comfortable relying on this office.”
A previous civilian oversight board, the Community Ombudsman Opportunity Panel, existed within the Police Department and had no subpoena powers. It went three years without issuing a report, a year without meeting, and at one point its membership dwindled to a single person.
When then-mayor Walsh signed OPAT into law in early January 2021, it was considered the signature recommendation from the task force, and a hallmark of Walsh’s attempts at police reform.
Walsh left City Hall later that year to become the nation’s labor secretary and he was immediately succeeded by Kim Janey, who as City Council president became acting mayor. Janey is the one who appointed Everett to lead the new entity. Janey was eliminated from the mayoral race in September’s preliminary contest, and Wu was elected the city chief executive and sworn in last November.
The Boston Police Department has been buffeted by scandal in recent years, even as the city enjoyed a downturn in street violence in 2021, including shootings and homicides, which bucked national trends. Dennis White, a former Boston police commissioner, was fired last year after decades-old domestic violence allegations resurfaced. White has denied wrongdoing. The city is currently searching for his permanent replacement.
Other controversies include an overtime fraud scandal at an evidence warehouse and revelations that the department allowed an officer, Patrick M. Rose Sr., to continue to serve on the force for years after investigators determined in the mid-1990s he had more than likely molested a child.