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Boston police watchdog agency at crossroads as directors leave, first sustained complaint rejected

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2019

Boston’s police watchdog agency broke new ground at its meeting this month: Two years after it was first created and after receiving more than 200 citizen complaints, the Office of Police Accountability and Transparency’s Civilian Review Board sustained an allegation against a police officer.

Even then, the finding — which took issue with the department’s practice of publicly identifying children who have been killed — was almost immediately rejected by Boston Police Commissioner Michael Cox.

“Based on my review of this investigation, the employees involved acted in accordance with the Department’s Rules and Procedures,” Cox said in a July 20 letter to the agency. He concluded, “I will not be implementing the recommended finding and disciplinary action.”

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Cox’s decision to strike down the office’s first and only recommendation gives new life to questions reform advocates have asked since the office’s inception: Does the police watchdog agency have power? And, if so, what is it choosing to do with it?

Critics who once hailed the office as a triumph of post-George Floyd police reform are demanding that it be more proactive and dynamic. Beyond its relative inaction on complaints, the office has run into Police Department roadblocks on complaints connected to ongoing criminal cases and on its questions regarding the department’s disciplinary standards.

And now its top two officials are on their way out. Executive Director Stephanie Everett was tapped by Governor Maura Healey to be the next Suffolk County Register of Probate and Family Court, and Deputy Director John Steies is moving across the country.

“OPAT, by all reports, has not done enough,” said activist Jamarhl Crawford, who sat on the 2020 police reform task force that pushed for the office. “It needs to take more initiative” in launching its own investigations, he said.

The office was created in January 2021, following widespread protests about race and policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police. The new office, created by Mayor Martin J. Walsh at the task force’s recommendation, replaced the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, an organization that was generally seen as ineffectual and rarely convened. For the first time, in OPAT, the city had a police oversight office that existed outside of the Police Department with the power to subpoena the department, launch its own probes, and oversee those handled internally by the department.

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People can file complaints with OPAT against officers, which are then adjudicated by the agency’s Civilian Review Board. The office, which has a $1.5 million budget, also maintains online dashboards available on the city’s website about police use of force and pedestrian stops. The office’s Internal Affairs Oversight Panel reviews department-issued discipline reports, looking at 11 this year and agreeing with the Police Department’s findings on nine of them.

Of the at least 209 reports the agency has received, it has so far investigated 83, data from OPAT shows. The others, according to the agency’s annual report released last week, were considered to be outside the office’s jurisdiction or did not contain an allegation of wrongdoing.

Of the 83 complaints the agency has investigated, 38 currently remain pending, 24 have been dismissed, and two were withdrawn. The rest were presented to the Civilian Review Board, which deemed 11 not sustained, six to have insufficient evidence to make a ruling, one unfounded, and one sustained.

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Sophia Hall, who handles police litigation for the advocacy group Lawyers for Civil Rights, said OPAT has “fallen flat.”

“In some way it exacerbates the problem,” Hall said of the watchdog agency. “OPAT has done more harm than good if what it provides is false evidence that police misconduct isn’t a real problem in the city of Boston.”

Everett, who became the office’s first executive director in July 2021, said in a statement through the mayor’s office that she has worked “to build a foundation that is centered on trust and moves the needle towards improved relationships between our community and the Boston Police.”

She added she’s “confident” in OPAT’s future.

Mayor Michelle Wu praised Everett’s tenure but said she wants the office’s next chief to elevate the operation to the “next level.”

Wu said that means “really doing a deep dive with the community and understanding the the kind of systemic policies and regulations and rules that shape interactions with residents.”

Wu said she hasn’t begun a search for a replacement for Everett, who has a confirmation hearing for the probate job scheduled for Wednesday.

The complaints the office has so far received include allegations of racial bias, a precinct flying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag, and multiple claims of “disrespectful treatment” by officers, according to a database OPAT maintains.

After reviewing complaints, its Civilian Review Board can sustain the case, decide there’s insufficient evidence to make a finding, or determine it is unfounded or outside of the board’s purview.

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In one instance, the board ruled a person’s complaint that officers failed to identify themselves was unfounded after the board reviewed body camera footage and saw evidence to the contrary.

The office’s lone sustained complaint came from the family of a 14-year-old boy who was shot to death in October 2022. The family was upset that the Police Department publicly identified the child, saying it had violated their privacy, according to documents.

On July 13, the board voted unanimously to sustain the complaint, saying that a department policy forbid “the disclosure of the names of juveniles.” It recommended the department’s media relations employees be retrained on juvenile matters and take sensitivity training.

In his letter striking down the recommendation a week later, Cox wrote that while he’s sympathetic to the trauma the family’s experienced, he correctly noted that state law does not protect the privacy of people who have died, and his employees followed department policy in identifying the child. Department policy forbids the identification of juveniles, but it also says names of “persons killed” can be released following notification of next of kin.

Cox retains the authority to make final calls on discipline.

Steies, OPAT’s deputy director, said he doesn’t read too much into the commissioner’s rejection. Still, he said that even if it’s been department policy to identify dead people, “it’s logical” to expect the department to review this practice going forward in light of the CRB’s decision.

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“Without consent of the family — no, I think it’s reasonable to assume that particularly for a minor you would have some sort of familial and parental consent,” Steies said.

Despite sustaining only one complaint, Steies said his office has been successful in other initiatives, such as diversifying the Police Department. He said the office would soon release a report focusing on the Police Department’s internal efforts and OPAT’s grants and training work to advance that goal.

“In a lot of ways we have achieved a really solid foundation in the last two years,” Steies said.

Still, others disagree. Larry Calderone, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which is the city’s largest police union, said the office’s decision to move against a “common practice” of publicly identifying people who were killed is an example of why OPAT has not been successful.

“Their first entry on the job they were hired to do was done poorly,” the union president said.

Calderone said OPAT was a “waste of taxpayer money,” and argued does the same job as the Police Department’s internal affairs and the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission, which Calderone sits on.

OPAT appears to be running into two separate issues as it reviews complaints against the Police Department. In the office’s annual report, Everett noted the Police Department has not provided a breakdown of what the standard punishment is for a given infraction, which makes it difficult to recommend fair discipline, she says.

Steies said he believes the department will produce one in the coming months, adding that it is “very important” to have discipline standardized so officers aren’t disproportionately punished.

Additionally, OPAT documents show the agency at least twice has run into a hurdle when a complaint is connected to ongoing criminal investigation. The legislation that created the office says OPAT must try to avoid interfering with such investigations and gives the Police Department authority to decline OPAT’s requests for reports and footage connected to some submitted complaints.

In one case filed by a complainant who was in jail, OPAT said it didn’t have access to reports from the Police Department. The same happened in a case involving police response to a domestic violence call.

“If you can’t investigate if there’s a criminal charge pending, you’re really stuck,” said attorney Howard Friedman, who focuses on police misconduct cases and is generally critical of OPAT as an effective accountability mechanism. “It upsets me because it means they aren’t going to be able to investigate most cases.”

Steies said this has not hampered OPAT extensively so far — and it wouldn’t cause something to be not sustained. It could, however, delay a finding, which he said is on the office’s radar.

“We’re working within the confines of the ordinance,” Steies said, “and doing our best in that respect.”


Sean Cotter can be reached at sean.cotter@globe.com. Follow him @cotterreporter.