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After rollout, Mass. police watchdog agency acknowledges holes, possible errors in disciplinary database

The Cambridge Police Department was among those left off of the POST commission's database, even though the department submitted officer disciplinary records as requested.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The criticism came just as swift as the praise. Not 24 hours after the new Massachusetts police-watchdog agency released for the first time a statewide database of thousands of officer disciplinary complaints, it admitted the eagerly awaited list had gaps, errors, and major omissions.

At least three of the police departments in larger cities and towns around Boston were omitted from the database released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, Commission. The commission acknowledged that a database error left Cambridge and Everett police off of the list, even though the two departments submitted officer disciplinary records as requested.

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Further, officials with Brookline Police Department, whose former chief was fired last year over sexual harassment allegations, also said it sent information that was left out.

“We always anticipated that there would be some corrections,” POST executive director Enrique Zuniga said in an interview Wednesday, when complaints and issues began to surface. “I did not quite anticipate that two big agencies like Everett or Cambridge would have fallen through the cracks, but the idea is to continue to improve.”

The database was the largest public action by the commission, which was created in 2020 by a landmark police reform law passed in the wake of worldwide protests following the murder of George Floyd. But within hours of it coming online, the list drew criticism from advocates who said it was full of inconsistencies, and from policing organizations that said it treated officers unfairly by listing every infraction — even lower-grades ones such as being absent from work or sleeping on duty.

The errors within raise questions about whether the database was ready for public release, as the commission is expected to make myriad corrections and additions to address the complaints.

“They essentially just threw everything out there,” said Scott Hovsepian, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police statewide union. “When you do something like putting these lists out to the public, you can’t take it back.”

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Hovsepian said he’s heard from union members that officers say their discipline was miscategorized or included even though they were exonerated.

Some of the sustained complaints are serious, involving sexual harassment, untruthfulness, or problems with use of force. Others are workplace issues, with descriptions that include “misplaced cell phone,” “discourteous to supervisor,” or just simple “incompetence.”

Zuniga acknowledged there appear to be “a couple dozen” instances where police officers showed up as having sustained complaints even after decisions had been reversed. He said, “It’s not a widespread issue, but it’s an important one.”

“I wouldn’t like it if I saw my name in there and it was an unsustained complaint, for example, but we’re working on it,” Zuniga said. “We’ll take down whatever we need to take down. That’s part of the process.”

He said the commission by design has to rely on “information that is reported to us” by police departments, and, as a result, there may be some misclassifications. Zuniga said one issue appeared to stem from departments submitting multiple allegations from one incident, even though not all were sustained as violations. In such cases, the database listed all of the original allegations, even though the list is supposed to contain only sustained complaints.

A complaint is considered sustained if an investigation found a “preponderance of evidence to prove the allegation of an act that was determined to be misconduct,” according to POST.

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Other gaps remain. POST said in its initial press release that it “has verified” that 167 police forces “do not have reportable complaints.” But one of the larger towns that doesn’t have any officers listed is Shrewsbury, which settled a federal police brutality lawsuit in 2015. The department didn’t respond to requests for comment about its data or the disposition of any corresponding internal affairs investigations.

Meanwhile, Brookline Police Deputy Superintendent Paul Campbell on Thursday said his agency did send the commission data in March, despite the database not showing any complaints against Brookline officers. He said he confirmed that POST had received information about former chief Ashley Gonzalez, who the town’s select board fired in October after an external investigation found he sexually harassed women in the department.

Asked about Brookline and what other departments may have been left off, a POST spokesperson on Thursday said the commission was working on getting more answers.

Police reform advocates also took issue with the list, arguing most of the complaints fail to explain what was specifically alleged. The organization Lawyers for Civil Rights questioned how complaints against two Arlington officers, who are the subject of an ongoing racial profiling lawsuit filed by the advocacy organization, are listed as “other misconduct” even though there is a specific category for bias.

“There are these holes,” said Sophia Hall of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “But only if you’re looking for them.”

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Still, she said the foundation for the POST commission is there. With some adjustments, such as randomized audits to ensure police departments are following reporting rules, she said the commission could be as strong as it was created to be.

“The building blocks of what we have in POST are a good thing,” she said. “If we really want these tools working, you’ve got to let a hammer be a hammer.”

The POST, signed into law in December 2020, oversees officer certification and investigations into misconduct. Up to this point, it has worked on implementing the new certification protocol that was created in the same bill, rolling out proscribed training for officers, and fielding complaints. It has made headlines for decertifying some officers after reviewing their cases individually.

The commission, which is led by Zuniga and includes a panel of lawyers, advocates, and police officers, was supposed to release its database in May 2022. Advocates had been pushing for it since, and expectations were high.

“People’s disappointment around the lack of information really underscores how an agency like this can have a big impact in how policing works,” said Rahsaan Hall, executive director of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts.

The legislators who originally pushed for POST say they’re happy to see it moving forward even if there have been some bumps.

“It’s a work in progress, “said Representative Russell Holmes, a Mattapan Democrat who championed the database. While he added that he is happy with the work that has so far been done, he said POST “needs to be out in front much more.”

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Representative Carlos Gonzales, a key negotiator in the State House, said he believes POST is doing a good job, but he’d like to see a review of the law in the coming years.

Specifically, he said, “how it’s provided accountability, how much it’s been able to train, how it’s been able to establish guidelines.”

Representative Bud Williams, chair of the MA Black and Latino Caucus, said he’s heard the concerns about the database and is planning on meeting with Zuniga to course correct.

“If we have to make in-flight corrections,” he said. “Then in-flight corrections will be made.”

Sarah Ryley of Globe staff contributed to this report.


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