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In Mass. police discipline database, small number of racial-bias complaints raises concerns with activists

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

If you take the state’s new disciplinary database at face value, it appears police have all but eliminated racial and ethnic bias from their ranks.

The current version of the police watchdog agency’s database, which contains about 3,400 sustained complaints against still-active officers going back to the 1980s, features only 13 complaints of racial or ethnic bias, involving 11 officers. And those numbers could shrink further, as spokespeople for three police departments said they each have an entry included in error that they are trying to have removed.

But activists are not celebrating.

Some expressed concerns that a combination of inconsistent reporting of bias incidents to the Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, Commission’s database, unclear standards in how departments should provide data, and departments possibly being reluctant to sustain complaints in the first place result in the long-anticipated list recording artificially low numbers of these types of offenses.

“The database is only going to be as good as the data that goes into it,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the NAACP’s Boston branch. “Immediately I’ve got questions about how incidents are categorized.”


Descriptions of the allegations of bias, like most entries in the POST database, are often brief or nonexistent. One complaint against a Lincoln police officer who faced discipline of “termination or something similar” for an allegation of ethnic bias does not explain what happened, and the department didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The commission most recently updated its database on Sept. 1.

Other allegations of racial or ethnic bias in the database are expressed in bare-bones descriptions such as: “Made inappropriate remarks based on race and social class prejudices,” “Derogatory Remarks,” “Conduct Unbecoming an Officer,” and “Racially insensitive comment.”

Three of the complaints resulted in suspensions, including two for 30 days or more, though one, in Boston, was “held in abeyance,” which generally means that discipline was handed down but not immediately imposed if the person met specific conditions.


Worcester, Wellesley College, and Springfield police departments all said the database listed a complaint against one of their officers that is marked as bias but should not be.

A statement from the POST Commission said it will “continue to review requests for corrections and/or updates from law enforcement agencies and POST will validate these records before making any changes to the database.”

“We need greater transparency on racial bias so the database accurately reflects the lived experience of people of color on the ground,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, head of Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Espinoza-Madrigal said the relatively low number of complaints of bias “raises serious red flags.”

“We believe this reflects law enforcement’s reluctance or failure to report incidents related to racial bias,” he said.

Enrique Zuniga, executive director of the POST Commission, said in a recent interview that he “absolutely” understands activists’ concerns on this front and that the commission plans on continuing to work to make sure it is collecting and presenting data fully and clearly.

“Let’s make sure that we’re getting them the way they’re supposed to be reported to us,” he said of the complaints in the database, which currently is supposed to be accurate up to Jan. 31.

He noted that the commission receives unsustained complaints in addition to the sustained ones that it puts in the database, and while he doesn’t intend to release unsustained complaints of individuals, the commission will do “aggregate reporting” of them.


The POST Commission intends to analyze that data, he said, to see if it can pick out deeper trends, such as one department with a large number of unsustained complaints about racial bias that the commission then can attempt to dig into further.

“Is there something systemic we should look at?” he said. “Which is our intention ― it’s also part of our mission.”

The commission is reliant on what police departments report about the type of misconduct and the details of each case. That’s led to multiple errors and omissions, including: five cities and towns whose data didn’t mesh with the system and accidentally got left out, multiple duplicate complaints, and some allegations that were unsustained or overturned, which the commission removed two weeks after its August rollout in what its executive director called a “correction.”

Espinoza-Madrigal highlighted one case that he said illustrated concerns about racial bias. In a federal lawsuit his organization filed last year, a Black 20-year-old man from Somerville alleged that four white Arlington police officers violated his rights when they detained him in February 2021 while they were looking for a trespassing suspect who was white.

Two of the officers appear in the database, both for “Failure to respond to an incident according to established procedure,” which is characterized as “Other Misconduct.”

Arlington Police Chief Julie Flaherty, who didn’t respond to a request for comment last week, has said that an investigation found issues with how officers handled the incident, but an investigator hired by the department said no evidence of racial profiling was found.


Other instances that have made the news include the State Police firing an unidentified state trooper who was on probation in 2020 after he called a driver unspecified racial slurs during an off-duty confrontation. The State Police have no incidents listed as bias in the database, however, and 652 of the agency’s 676 individual sustained allegations are characterized as “Other Misconduct.”

In 2022, Woburn Officer John Donnelly resigned after the department became aware that he had helped plan the violent 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., an event that included neo-Nazi groups and claimed the life of a counterprotester. He shows up in the database, but only for “Other Misconduct” and “conduct unbecoming.”

Then there’s the case of Springfield’s Gregg Bigda, the narcotics detective the city has tried to fire for years and was federally indicted in 2018 on charges that he used excessive force when he arrested two Latino teens.

Bigda is the subject of three complaints in the database. One is classified as “Other / conduct unbecoming,” and two are “Other criminal conduct.” In one of those, he was accused of hitting a Latino teen and yelling, “Welcome to the white man’s world,” according to the federal indictment, though he ultimately was acquitted in that case.

In each of these instances, the departments moved to hold the officers accountable, but advocates say the core of the problem isn’t reflected in this data.


“Police departments are inconsistent at identifying instances of racial bias and sometimes miss the mark entirely,“ said Jessica Lewis, an American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts staff attorney, noting the Bigda case. “The POST Commission needs to establish, and communicate to police departments, clear guidelines on what racial bias is.”

The POST Commission also receives complaints directly and has fielded 148 allegations of bias since it posted a form to receive them on its website in November, said spokesperson Cynthia Campbell.

But the agency hasn’t ruled on any of those allegations.

It deemed that 50 of them duplicated cases already in the database or under review,” she said, and of the 98 remaining, POST investigators deemed 66 unfounded or said they “required no further action.” The other 32 are “under active investigation at this time,” and the commission cannot comment on them, Campbell said.

Of the 98 that weren’t deemed to be duplicates, she said, 43 alleged racial or ethnic bias.

Sarah L. Ryley of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Sean Cotter can be reached at him @cotterreporter.