In the wake of the 2020 police reform protests that swept the nation after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, the city of Boston implemented several meaningful reforms to improve the way law enforcement works. One of the most promising of those reforms was the establishment of the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency, a new independent police watchdog that has broad authority to investigate the Boston Police Department, officer conduct, and the agency’s rules and procedures. But more than two years after the office was created, OPAT has yet to find its footing.
According to its public dashboard, OPAT received 61 civilian complaints in 2022, none of which have been sustained. For an office that relies on residents to levy complaints about police conduct as its main trigger to launch investigations, that’s a conspicuously low number of aggrieved residents in a city that employs about 2,000 police officers. That could mean that the BPD has had few or no cases of egregious behavior. But what it more likely means is that residents are simply not yet aware that they can turn to OPAT as a resource for providing accountability.
“People still don’t know about who we are,” Stephanie Everett, the executive director of OPAT, told the Globe editorial board. That’s certainly an understandable problem; the office is still very new, and it takes time to both raise awareness about its existence and build trust in it as a reliable and independent watchdog. After being appointed in 2021, Everett has had to build the office from scratch, from staffing up to finding a physical space to operate out of. But at some point, her office has to start delivering tangible results that bolster police oversight in the city. After all, holding the BPD accountable by releasing findings of misconduct or corruption is probably the best awareness campaign OPAT could have.
The good news is that OPAT doesn’t have to rely strictly on civilian complaints to start an investigation. The Civilian Review Board, which falls under OPAT, can be proactive and open an inquiry if two-thirds of its nine members suspect that any abuse of power has gone unchecked. If, for example, the board’s chair, Peter Alvarez, were to come across a news report of officer misconduct or allegations of corruption, he could recommend starting an investigation without soliciting or waiting for someone to file a complaint. And while Boston residents are still learning about OPAT, Everett and Alvarez should keep tabs on BPD matters that are worth a closer look through avenues other than civilian complaints.
That said, it’s still crucial that OPAT makes itself known to residents as a resource they can turn to and trust if they have a bad experience with law enforcement. Everett told the editorial board that her office has engaged with city residents in a number of ways — through listening sessions, media outreach, and developing a youth advisory council to help familiarize young people with OPAT’s work. Those are all good steps.
But as Everett acknowledged, there’s still more work to be done on that front. And as this editorial board wrote last year, OPAT should advertise itself more prominently — similar to, for example, the “If you see something, say something” campaign law enforcement uses to solicit reports of suspicious activity — and actively work with BPD to ensure that officers communicate to residents they interact with that they can turn to OPAT to file a complaint.
Beyond engaging residents directly, it’s also important for city lawmakers to keep tabs on OPAT’s progress. The reality is that civilian oversight of police, both in Boston and across the country, is a work in progress that leaves much to be desired. No watchdog has been perfectly conceived, and the City Council should be open to amending the ordinance that established OPAT to address certain unforeseen hurdles.
One idea that’s worth exploring, for example, is whether all civilian complaints should be directed to OPAT whenever they’re submitted. Right now, the BPD runs its own process to solicit and review civilian complaints, and it continues to receive more complaints than OPAT. The BPD told GBH News that it received over 120 civilian complaints in 2022, more than double what OPAT received. But given that independent investigations are more transparent and can generate more public confidence in their integrity than police internal reviews, the council could follow Chicago’s example and pass a law that requires the BPD to immediately turn over its civilian complaints to OPAT for review.
If OPAT doesn’t start getting more aggressive about shining light on police misconduct, it risks becoming yet another toothless oversight panel. And so far, that seems to be how the BPD sees it. As Tom Nolan, a criminologist and former BPD officer, put it: “It’s doubtful that OPAT is a dot on the radar screen at 1 Schroeder” — that is, BPD headquarters.
It’s on OPAT’s leadership and the City Council to make sure that’s not the case for long.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.