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Police, Harvard near deal to mediate civilian complaints

Mediator would address civilians’ minor complaints

After years of false starts, the Boston Police Department is nearing a deal with its three unions and Harvard Law School to set up a simpler, speedier system for resolving many of the civilian complaints lodged against officers, police and Harvard officials say.

Under the system, mediators from the Harvard Mediation Program at Harvard Law School would handle dozens of the more moderate disputes that clog up the department’s Internal Affairs Division, to the frustration of plaintiffs. Those grievances generally involve rudeness, unprofessional conduct, and abusive language. More severe cases would continue to be adjudicated by Internal Affairs.

Lieutenant Michael McCarthy, the department spokesman, said the program, which Commissioner William B. Evans has been seeking since July, could be in place “in the coming weeks.” Sergeant Mark Parolin, the president of the Boston Superior Officers Federation, which represents 251 of the department’s approximately 2,100 sworn members, praised the idea of mediation, adding, “I’m very optimistic a deal could get done.”

City officials, lawyers, and community leaders have long urged the department to develop an outside mediation program, but the approach never gained traction because of bargaining disagreements and a lack of advocacy. Third-party mediation, which takes place at a neutral location, has been used since the early 2000s by many big-city police forces, including those in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Denver; San Diego; San Francisco; and San Jose. The United States Justice Department and law enforcement experts say those programs have helped ease tensions between the police and the public.


Rachel A. Viscomi, the Harvard program’s assistant director, said she expected to complete an agreement once police unions approve the policy. She said mediators would be drawn from a pool of Harvard Law School students and local residents trained in dispute resolution and provided by the program at no charge.


“It doesn’t always mean they’ll agree or want to resolve it right there,” she said, “but the opportunity for greater connection is very important.”

Civilians filed about 300 complaints against Boston officers in each of the past two years, according to department records. While many were severe enough to warrant formal investigations, including allegations of unnecessary use of force or being untruthful on arrest reports or in trial testimony, a review of hundreds of complaints against officers shows that many boil down to allegations that an officer behaved unprofessionally during traffic stops, arrests, and other interactions with citizens.

According to department documents, recent cases that could qualify for mediation include a man who said officers working a traffic detail near Fenway Park accosted and berated him as he crossed the street; passengers in a car who said an officer intimidated and castigated them during a traffic stop and issued them tickets out of retaliation; and a bicyclist struck by a vehicle who said an officer responding to his call for help told him “he had an attitude and threatened to lock him up for disorderly conduct.”

Mediation involves a supervised face-to-face session between the officer and the person complaining. The aim is for the two parties to hear each other’s side and, ideally, part with an apology or a handshake. Sessions can be scheduled quickly, are typically concluded in one day, and give Internal Affairs detectives more time for serious cases, mediation specialists say. The fact that they do not take place at police headquarters, experts say, is an important factor in encouraging people to go to mediation.


In New York, for example, 85 cases were mediated in 2012, and civilians and officers both said they were satisfied with the process in 75 of the cases, according to the city’s independent Civilian Complaint Review Board. In 10 cases, one or both of the participants was not satisfied and the case was sent to the investigative division.

Denver has averaged about 43 mediation cases a year since 2006, and 89 percent of complainants and 83 percent of officers said they were satisfied with the process, according to the city’s Office of the Independent Monitor. In Denver and New York, officials said, use of mediation cut down on the time required to resolve other cases.

Maria R. Volpe, director of the Dispute Resolution Program at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said mediation is vital at a time when relations between the police and citizens have become frayed around the country.

The case Friday in which a Boston police sergeant, Henry Staines, apologized to a Roxbury man identified as Brother Lawrence for waving a replica gun at him, officials say, is the sort of dispute that can be resolved amicably in a climate that encourages face-to-face meetings rather than formal investigations.

“Instead of walking away bitter and frustrated,” she said, “people have an opportunity to walk away feeling that they have been heard.”

Volpe said “it’s not unusual for emotions to run high” at the start of a session. She said mediators establish ground rules, encourage role reversal, and prevent interruptions when necessary to “reduce the volume.”


A mediation program in Boston, policing experts say, would be an important option for a force that has lagged behind the nation in streamlining its disciplinary procedures and in persuading civilians that it polices its own in a fair and timely way. In 2012, former commissioner Edward F. Davis conceded that many internal investigations can take 400 days or more to resolve and agreed that it was “far too long.”

Complaints against police should be resolved within 180 days, according to national law enforcement experts and a 2003 Justice Department report, “Standards and Guidelines for Internal Affairs: Recommendations From a Community of Practice.” Some departments, such as those in Charlotte, N.C., and Denver, set out to resolve complaints in half that time.

Boston also has a stated goal of 90 days, one it almost never meets. In 2012 and 2013, a city review board found, more than two-thirds of the cases it examined took the department 12 months or longer to resolve. A 2005 Northeastern University report, commissioned by the department for $60,000, also urged mediation, saying it would help clear such logjams.

Evans, the Boston commissioner, discussed his plan in a July 3 letter to the department’s Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, which hears appeals from civilians whose complaints were rejected by the Internal Affairs Division. The letter was obtained through a public records request.


In it, Evans told the panel he had assigned Superintendent Francis Mancini, who heads the division, to create a “Civilian Complaints Mediation Initiative” after meeting with the Harvard specialists and reviewing Justice Department guidelines. The oversight panel itself began calling for a mediation program soon after Mayor Thomas M. Menino set it up by executive order in 2007.

Carlton E. Williams, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said he could not comment on the plan without seeing its details. But he said most people do not want to become entangled in endless internal affairs cases or file a lawsuit against an officer.

“The vast majority of complaints, people say they just want an apology,” he said. “They just want to be treated with respect and be heard. For that, a mediation process is very valuable.”

Patrick Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, which represents about 1,500 patrolmen, declined to comment. Calls to the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, the third union, were not immediately returned.

“I think it would make it easier for all sides, from Internal Affairs to the police officer to the community,” Parolin of the Superior Officers Federation said.

“Eighty to 90 percent of all IAD complaints are basic misunderstandings between the community and the police officer, [such as] a person who’s not happy getting a speeding ticket,” he said. With mediation, he added, the complaint “gets resolved once both sides sit down and talk.”

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated that mediators would be provided by the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School. The Harvard Mediation Program, which will provide the mediators, exists under the umbrella of the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program but is a distinct organization.