When a Boston police officer called an African-American professor a “banana-eating jungle monkey” in an e-mail to the Globe, he was fired. But when a detective told two Hispanic men “you guys didn’t make it over the border,” he was quietly given a reprimand.
When an officer looked up an arrest record as a favor to a friend, he was suspended for 30 days. But when a patrolman asked a fellow officer to release his goddaughter and her friend from custody, he was suspended for one day.
The cases, all from the past six years, reflect the Boston Police Department’s latitude in meting out punishments.
The department has few set disciplinary guidelines, leading to wide-ranging punishments and tension in the rank and file, where many believe that officers popular with the administration will be insulated from the most severe consequences.
“Commissioner [Edward F.] Davis’s punishment model is not what you did, but rather who you know,” said Jack Kervin, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation.
Davis, who has long disputed that assertion, said the range in punishments given to police officers accused of wrongdoing shows the complexity of meting out appropriate discipline.
Police officials say they consider a wide range of factors: the circumstances around the offense; the record of the officer; and whether the officer was remorseful for his or her actions and swiftly accepted responsibility. But many of the officers who received tougher punishment were first-time offenders or had minor violations on their records, according to discipline records from 2006 to 2012 reviewed by the Globe. The reports do not include the officers’ past history or extensive details of each case.
“We take each case individually and we do the best that we can to be fair in meting out discipline,” said Davis, who became commissioner in late 2006. “It’s a system that seems to be working better than in the past . . . I think if there is a problem in the system it’s one of communicating all of the facts and circumstances of the issues to everybody.”
For example, police said, the detective who insulted the Hispanic men was later apologetic, agreed to be retrained, and said he did not intend to be offensive.
Some union officials have called for more specific discipline guidelines, but Davis said he believes that is an attempt to draw out the disciplinary process and avoid swift punishment.
The department has a list of offenses that can be punished with up to a five-day suspension for offenses like failure to carry a rule book, and making disparaging, racially biased comments.
But there are no fixed guidelines for when an officer is accused of committing a more serious offense like domestic assault. Following an internal affairs investigation, punishment can be negotiated between officers and the department or a disciplinary hearing is held to determine guilt, independent of any criminal proceedings. A hearing officer, appointed by the commissioner, determines guilt and the department’s legal adviser recommends discipline to the commissioner.
Kervin, who described the process as “tyrannical,” said that a large number of disciplinary decisions appealed by his members are eventually overruled by an independent arbitrator. “The union is responsible for ensuring that any disciplinary actions are based on just cause and the officers receive uniform penalties,” Kervin said in a statement.
Kervin said unions want more guidelines to speed up the disciplinary process, instead of the current system which can keep officers in limbo for years.
“The union has been screaming for years that we need a basic discipline model,” he said. “Our members suffer because it takes three to five years to be vindicated.”
Most recently, a group representing minority officers conducted its own analysis of officer discipline and determined that the department goes easier on white offenders than black or Hispanic offenders.
“There is no consistency,” said Willie Bradley, chairman of the legal committee for the organization, Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, known as MAMLEO. “Why are we spending a massive amount of money to train these officers and then when they do get punished there is no consistency in how they’re punished?
MAMLEO compared several disciplinary outcomes decided under Davis. One case they highlighted was that of Officer Baltazar DaRosa, a Cape Verdean patrolman who was arrested in 2005 following a fatal shooting in a Randolph nightclub. He was accused of acting as an accessory to murder after one of his relatives shot a man, then took off with DaRosa in his car. DaRosa told police he did not know what had happened inside the club and a jury eventually acquitted him.
But in 2010 the department fired him.
MAMLEO questioned why he was fired, when Sergeant Detective Thomas Joyce, a white officer, received a 45-day suspension after he negotiated a plea following a 2008 arrest in Savannah, Ga., where he was accused of breaking into a home and holding two women against their will. Savannah police said he then assaulted a police officer.
“This is just a small peek at what this administration has done as far as favoritism,” said Bradley, a former sergeant with the department who has his own disciplinary history. He resigned with charges pending after the department accused him of being a leak to the Globe on a federal investigation into a corrupt police officer. He denies the charges.
MAMLEO compared Bradley’s case to that of Sergeant Daniel Keeler, who was accused of giving criminal background information to a Herald reporter and stealing a pair of sunglasses from a store where he was conducting an investigation. Keeler, who said he returned the sunglasses, received a 30-day suspension.
Police officials say it is not fair to compare such cases. There were questions about Joyce’s guilt among Savannah investigators, they said. A Georgia judge eventually sentenced Joyce to two years probation on lesser charges.
Department officials said they may decide punishment based on the results of their own investigation.
“We’re in a work standard place where we can look at the preponderance of the evidence,” Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey said.
An arbitrator recently overturned DaRosa’s termination and DaRosa is in the Boston Police Academy, preparing to return to the department.
The Globe review found that punishment can appear inconsistent regardless of the officer’s race.
In 2007, Davis said he would fire any officer after their third serious rules violation leading to a suspension, a three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. At the time, he said any rules violation that leads to suspension was serious by definition.
Since Davis made that vow a Hispanic officer has been suspended three times – for neglect of duty, for behavior that led his wife to file a restraining order against him, and for letting a suspect in custody escape. He remains on the force.
He is one seven officers, several of whom are black or Latino, suspended three times since Davis announced the three strikes policy who remain in the department. “I’m not backing away from the three strikes statement that I made but the implementation is something that is dependent on what the conduct is,” Davis said.
Specialists who study departmental discipline say big-city departments rely too much on discipline when the most effective approach is to focus on retraining.
Davis said that is what he has tried to do. “We’re using counseling and training since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’ve attempted to change behaviors through not only using discipline but also using training.”
Kenneth Anderson, an attorney who has represented dozens of patrol officers accused of violations under Davis, disagreed.
“I can’t think of one specific case where anyone was ever sent for retraining,” he said. He recalled one case where the department wanted to suspend an officer who wrongly gave a citation to a driver for an inspection sticker violation. Eventually, the officer was given only a written reprimand, but that was after two years of investigation. During that time, the subject of retraining did not come up, Anderson said.
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.