When protests swept across the country after a police officer murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh declared racism a “public health crisis” in Boston and convened a task force to look at how policing in the city could improve. Later that year, that task force released a report detailing a list of sweeping reform recommendations for the Boston Police Department — and the mayor swiftly adopted each proposal.
One of those recommendations was to create an independent watchdog, known as the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, with subpoena power and the legal authority to investigate deaths in policy custody, excessive use of force, perjury, discrimination, and abuse of authority.
For a force mired in misconduct scandals — the latest guilty plea from a BPD officer for a federal crime came on Wednesday — another set of eyes was clearly warranted. But now, nearly a year since it was formally established, OPAT has received and reviewed only a handful of complaints, with recommendations still pending. (While OPAT doesn’t have the power to create new policies for the BPD or take disciplinary actions on its own, it is tasked with advising the mayor, City Council, and the BPD on what actions ought to be taken, and it can put pressure on them by making its findings public.)
Although some, like Larry Calderone, the president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, may point to the low number of complaints as evidence that the BPD is devoid of misconduct, the truth is more likely that the agency has yet to hit its stride. It’s crucial that OPAT succeeds as a watchdog, because the police department has shown little appetite or ability to discipline even the most egregious cases of misconduct on its own. Just to cite a few examples, the Boston Police Department was forced to rehire an officer credibly accused of beating another officer; lightly disciplined one who boasted of hitting protestors with his car; and failed to fire another even after concluding he had probably sexually abused children.
Some of the slow start is understandable. Before investigations can take place, for example, the agency needs to hire staff and secure a physical office. The Civilian Review Board and Internal Affairs Oversight Panel, both of which fall under OPAT’s umbrella, have only been fully staffed since January.
Still, one of the reasons OPAT has reviewed few complaints is that residents haven’t submitted many — only 16 in the last year, five of which have gone through the intake process. In order for the office to meaningfully investigate the department, it needs to be made aware of more instances of misconduct. People need to know that they can turn to OPAT as a resource when an interaction with a police officer goes sideways.
That could happen through outreach campaigns, which the watchdog’s director, Stephanie Everett, said are in the works. The city should also invest in advertisements with easy-to-find contact information — not unlike the “If you see something, say something” advertisement campaign for law enforcement across the country. The police department should also help spread the word by having officers let people they interact with know that they can submit a complaint to OPAT.
But raising awareness is only the first step. The next, more crucial step is to build trust so that people not only know that they could turn to OPAT but also feel comfortable doing so. The way to do that is to establish a reputation as a serious investigator and source of transparency on police conduct, especially when the BPD is so reluctant to release its records to the public. OPAT is tasked with releasing semiannual reports of its findings; it should ensure that at least once a year it makes public a thorough year-in-review report that highlights the BPD’s performance, including insights such as whether racial disparities in police stops are closing or not and explanations as to why such disparities may persist.
Finally, OPAT has the legal authority to start investigations of its own volition, regardless of whether it receives complaints. While the complaints are a good resource for the office in order to get a sense of how pervasive misconduct may be, they should not be the only trigger for investigations. To the contrary, OPAT should actively look for reasons to start investigations into patterns of racism, violence, or other abuses of power, and make recommendations for changes — be they individual officer discipline or broader policy proposals — based on its findings.
When it comes to reforming the BPD, Boston has a lot of plans, from finding a new commissioner to reconfiguring the agency’s overtime-bloated budget. But if the watchdog agency can realize its potential, its establishment could prove one of the most lasting consequential legacies in Boston of George Floyd’s murder.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.