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When police departments go off the rails

Stoughton becomes the poster child for missing pieces of police reform.

Dysfunction in the Stoughton Police Department has a long and sorry history that spans decades.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The police reform bill was supposed to be about bringing “justice, equity, and accountability” to law enforcement. Noble words and a noble cause.

But it is also about changing a culture and assuring that those entitled to carry a badge and a gun are of “good character.” To that end the commission created by that 2020 law is charged with recertifying every current member of every police force in the state — about 8,581 by the end of this month alone with a similar sized tranche due by this time next year.

Defining “good character” within its regulations got some pushback from police unions, but ultimately the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission settled on this:


“In assessing good character and fitness for employment, an employing agency may take into account whether an officer adheres to state and federal law, acts consistently with recognized standards of ethics and conduct adopted by the employing agency or as set forth in the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct most recently adopted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and is worthy of the public trust and of the authority given to law enforcement officers.”

That IACP code includes this key phrase: “I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all and will behave in a manner that does not bring discredit to me or to my agency.”

That’s the standard.

And then there’s the Stoughton Police Department.

There, one officer (and former head of the patrolmen’s union) recently resigned in the midst of an investigation into the death of a young woman with whom he was reportedly having a sexual relationship, and two other officers are on suspension in connection with that same investigation — one of whom was demoted in 2016 in the wake of a sex scandal of his own.


All three were involved in the department’s Police Explorers Program, where the now-resigned Matthew Farwell first met the late Sandra Birchmore when she was a teenager. Whether she was under age at the time is a matter of dispute.

Police Chief Donna McNamara has hired an outside firm to aid with a departmental probe even as the State Police continues to investigate the death of the pregnant Birchmore.

Dysfunction in the Stoughton Police Department, as reported by the Globe’s Dugan Arnett and Laura Crimaldi, has a long and sorry history that spans decades. But even the past several years have been fraught with scandal.

In 2020, one officer was charged with operating under the influence after he crashed his department-issued vehicle into a car stopped at a red light. He refused a breathalyzer and was acquitted. So was a sergeant charged with vehicular homicide in 2018 for allegedly running over a 74-year-old Canton man and then dragging the man some 40 feet under his truck. He’s now back on the force.

There was also the 2019 fight between two officers at roll call, a police lieutenant suing a sergeant for defamation and another lieutenant charging in a lawsuit he was retaliated against for performing his duties as president of the superior officers union.

In 2020, the department opened an internal affairs investigation into four officers, including the chief’s one-time rival for the top position back in 2017. The allegations that prompted the investigation were not made public.


All this in a department that numbers only some 60 officers.

But here we stand on the threshold of statewide police reform that demands something more than that an officer can hit a target with their pistol and not be a menace behind the wheel of their cruiser (a test at least one Stoughton officer has already flunked). It demands “good character and fitness for employment.”

According to a spokesperson for the POST Commission, Stoughton has filed its list of officers to be recertified by the commission (whose last names, as specified by the law, start with the letters A through H). But more information won’t be available on whether there is any impediment to their recertification until after July 1 — the deadline for the commission’s certification team to complete this phase of its work.

Executive director Enrique Zuniga told the commission meeting last week that some 645 of the more than 6,000 officers whose records were already submitted could only be “conditionally certified” because some requirement hadn’t been met. That could be as simple, he said, as missing CPR certification or as complicated as being placed on administrative leave — “cases we’ll have to study carefully on a one-on-one basis.”

Some 69 officers have already been identified, he added, as “meriting further review.”

The POST Commission has the power to recertify — or to decertify — individual police officers. But the relatively new state law does not provide any kind of broader reach.


Rampant civil rights violations might merit a Justice Department probe à la the Springfield Police Department’s narcotics unit. But the level of dysfunction in Stoughton cries out for a remedy closer to home, one akin to the concept of receivership the state can employ when school districts underperform.

The POST Commission certainly has its work cut out just implementing the law now on the books. But the sorry history of the Stoughton PD points to the need for a second round of police reform that deals with what happens when a department goes off the rails.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.