Ever since the shooting of Usaamah Rahim, Boston Police Commissioner William Evans, FBI special agent Vincent B. Lisi, and District Attorney Daniel F. Conley have been the picture of law enforcement unity.
Together, they rolled out surveillance video that — according to police and the FBI — explains why they killed Rahim, whom they describe as an ISIS-influenced terrorist who came at them with a knife. Others say the video is inconclusive. The figures are blurry and no weapon is apparent in the blotch identified as the suspect. Rahim’s relatives — who hired a Harvard law professor to represent them — are calling for a “complete and transparent” investigation.
Under state law, it’s Conley’s job to “direct and control” such a review. But based on a statement he released to detail an extensive information-gathering process, Conley’s mission is narrowly defined. It’s “to determine whether criminal charges are warranted in connection with a fatality,” he said.
Yet, there are still many questions regarding the decision to confront Rahim in that Roslindale parking lot. Given the DA’s close working relationship with police, how independent can he really be when it comes to answering those questions? Citing a “compelling need” for an independent review, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Justice League, and a half dozen others signed a letter asking Attorney General Maura Healey to investigate “the events surrounding the fatal shooting of a Black American Muslim.”
Several pending bills in the Legislature would require independent investigations by the AG or a special prosecutor whenever law enforcement officials use lethal force.
Skepticism about the willingness of prosecutors to police the police is not new. “Do district attorneys rubber stamp police use of deadly force?” asked Commonwealth Magazine in a January 2014 piece that reported these findings: Over the past 12 years, police killed 73 people across Massachusetts, and every investigation found they “were justified in using deadly force; only three of the cases were presented to a grand jury or judicial inquest to determine if a crime was committed.”
During his tenure as Suffolk County’s chief prosecutor, Conley has investigated eight cases involving a fatal shooting by Boston Police — and referred none for criminal prosecution. According to a summary supplied by Conley’s office, in six of those cases, the suspects pointed firearms at the officers. Of those six, five fired and three actually hit police officers. One lunged at police with a knife and another pointed a replica gun that looked real.
So far in 2015, two more suspects have been killed by Boston Police — Rahim and Angelo West, who was killed after he shot a Boston Police officer in the face.
Conley, said spokesman Jake Wark, goes far beyond the requirements of state law when it comes to releasing evidence gathered in the course of an investigation. Wark also noted that any case in which the DA declines to bring charges can be reviewed by the state AG or the US attorney.
As for the optics of Conley appearing at press conferences with police and the FBI, Wark said it’s more efficient that way. “Anybody who attended,” he said, is able to draw a distinction between statements made by police and the FBI, and those made by Conley, which have included pledges of independence and transparency.
To Wark, the difference between “the picture” from a press conference and “the facts” are clear.
But the ACLU’s Sarah Wunsch sees it differently. “There should be an independent and thorough investigation whenever a civilian is killed by law enforcement,” she said. “In this case, neither the Suffolk DA nor the FBI will be viewed as trustworthy by the public, as they routinely find these shootings justified and work very closely with each other and the Boston Police.”
Indeed, the record of the FBI investigating its own officer-involved shootings does not inspire confidence. As reported by The New York Times, the FBI found every one of 150 shootings by agents between 1993 and 2011 to be justified.
Given the sensitivity of the Rahim case — which involves race, religion, and alleged terrorism — an outside, truly independent review makes sense.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.