Nearly a year after the Boston Police Department launched a mediation program to reduce a backlog of minor grievances against officers, not a single complaint has been mediated because the officers involved have refused to participate.
The program, which began in September, was billed as a way to quickly resolve routine complaints such as allegations of disrespectful treatment, which would allow the department to spend more time investigating more serious allegations of misconduct or use of excessive force.
But for a complaint to be mediated, both parties must agree to participate. Under the program, managed by the Harvard Mediation Program at Harvard Law School, officers are asked first if they want to participate. If they refuse, the party who filed the complaint is not offered the option of mediation.
Of the 240 complaints filed in 2014, more than half would have been eligible for mediation. But so far this year, only 15 complaints have been identified by the Internal Affairs Division as “suitable.” Officers named in 10 of those complaints did not accept an offer to participate, said a Police Department spokesman, Lieutenant Detective Michael McCarthy. The department is waiting to hear back from officers in the other five eligible cases, he said.
“The Department will continue to identify cases suitable for mediation and offer that as a resolution option,” McCarthy said in a statement. “We encourage both complainants and employees to take advantage of the mediation option if eligible.”
Union officials say they have not discouraged members from participating, but Sergeant Mark Parolin, president of the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation, raised concerns about fairness. He is concerned that Internal Affairs selects the cases rather than making all routine complaints eligible for mediation.
“We’re all for mediation,” Parolin said. “We just want a fair and open process.”
Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts, said he is not surprised that officers have not participated.
“This is the same department that has zero volunteers for a body-worn camera program,” Hall said. “For the Boston Police Department to tout itself as a leader in community policing and have a backlog in [Internal Affairs] complaints and have a [mediation] program that officers fail to participate in raises concerns about their validity in community policing.”
It’s not unusual that officers are reluctant, officials say. “Officer resistance” is the primary reason similar programs fail to catch on during the first year, said Rachel A. Viscomi, assistant director of the mediation program.
“It’s not a process [officers are] familiar with,” she said. “It’s a challenge anytime you’re starting something new, especially when it’s so different from what they’re used to.”
“It is disappointing, but not out of the norm by any stretch,” Viscomi said.
Because the program is confidential, McCarthy said, the department does not have information about why the officers chose not to participate. According to Viscomi, two said they were not on duty when the incident occurred.
Viscomi said the Harvard Mediation Program and the Police Department plan to work together to figure out how to make officers more comfortable with the initiative.
Officer participation is essential to the program’s success, mediation experts say.
“You’ve got to make certain you get your law enforcement on board,” said Steve Charbonneau, executive director of Community Mediation Concepts, which manages several mediation programs in Colorado, Greensboro, N.C., and Greenville, S.C. “I don’t want my police officers telling me no because it’s going to be hard enough to get the complainant.”
Charbonneau said officers tend to be hesitant if they do not understand the program or think they will be forced to admit wrongdoing.
Charbonneau said police union members look to their leaders for direction, and so it is important that union officials back the program.
In Boston, union leaders support the mediation program, Patrick Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, said in a statement. But he said the program was “unilaterally” implemented without addressing questions from the unions.
While other mediation programs have had slow starts, those in Denver and New York City fared better than Boston’s during their initial year and have since increased in popularity.
In Denver, the Office of the Independent Monitor, a civilian oversight agency, mediated four complaints when it began in 2005. In New York City, the Civilian Complaint Review Board mediated seven complaints the first year after the program was launched in 1997.
Last year, Denver’s civilian oversight board mediated 38 complaints; in New York the board mediated 192 complaints.
Denver’s independent monitor, Nicholas E. Mitchell, said the program has helped to establish faith in the complaint process.
“People often do not feel comfortable filing complaints directly to the police. Denver’s mediation program has been successful because it is administered by my office, which enhances trust in the process,” Mitchell said in a statement.
That differs from the process in Boston, where a complaint must be filed with Internal Affairs, either in person, over the phone, or online.
Police officials have said previously that Internal Affairs investigations are laborious and mediation would cut the number. A Globe review found that the investigations often take years, leaving residents frustrated and officers in limbo about the possibility of being disciplined.
Complaints that include allegations an officer was rude, used foul language, or was unprofessional are examples of the cases that could be dispatched quickly through mediation.
When a complaint is mediated, the parties can agree to a mutually acceptable resolution and the case is closed. If they do not agree, the case would be investigated by Internal Affairs.
Mediation was first recommended in a report by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice in 2005 and again by the city’s Civilian Oversight Ombudsman Panel. But efforts to make it a reality stalled for more than a decade due to disagreements with the unions.
Now that the program exists, civic leaders say city and police officials need to ensure it thrives.
“This is just another opportunity for police and citizens to get together to work out their disagreements . . . This will be a worthwhile opportunity for everyone,” said J. Larry Mayes, one of three members of the Civilian Oversight Ombudsman Panel, which reviews Internal Affairs investigations. “To not do this is just disappointing.”