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O'Toole to create police review board
Citizen panel will probe complaints
By Suzanne Smalley, Globe Staff | January 1, 2005

Police Commissioner Kathleen M. O'Toole, in one of her most significant moves since she took office, plans to establish a citizen review board to investigate a wide range of civilian complaints against the department.

The board might be authorized to look into shootings involving police officers. It would investigate any grievance not resolved by the department's Internal Affairs Division, which handles complaints about misuse of force, harassment, bias, and other issues. Depending on its final form, the board could also advise O'Toole on a wide range of policy and personnel matters.

''We have to constantly reassure the community we're acting with openness and transparency," said O'Toole, who became chief in February. ''This is one more layer of accountability that's important. . . . I hope it will provide an avenue of appeal to individuals who filed a complaint and aren't happy with the results of that complaint."

O'Toole said in an interview with the Globe that she has asked Northeastern University criminologist Jack McDevitt to report back by March with recommendations on the board's powers and composition. She has given him $40,000 in federal money to research and travel to other cities with such panels, McDevitt said.

The board would be the first major effort in more than a decade to give civilians a say in department affairs, but it is likely to be fought by Boston's powerful police union.

Although McDevitt said he hopes the board is up and running by this summer, a number of key decisions have yet to be made. Among them are the question of who would appoint the board and how much it would cost. In several cities with such boards, the members are appointed by the mayor and city council.

McDevitt, who is just starting his work, also hasn't decided whether to recommend a board with independent investigative or subpoena powers, though he acknowledged that the most effective boards tend to have them.

He said yesterday he is determined to build a truly effective civilian review program and said O'Toole told him: ''Just get the best models from around the country. . . . She said, 'Just find me what works.' "

McDevitt served as the lead investigator for the St. Clair Commission, which was formed in 1991 to review the department and make it more accountable to the public, following fierce criticism of its performance. The commission recommended a civilian review board.

That five-member board was announced with much fanfare in January 1992, but soon faded away amid infighting over the board's lack of an investigative staff and subpoena power. Nearly six months into its existence the board had not heard a single case.

McDevitt said yesterday that he has learned from the past and intends to pattern the new board after the country's most progressive models. He cited the boards in such cities as Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Portland, Ore., as examples of approaches that have worked and said he plans to visit and study those boards.

In Milwaukee, a civilian review board, appointed by the mayor, is authorized to oversee major appointments, promotions, and policy decisions made by the police chief. The board, which is staffed by five volunteers and a paid executive director, has investigative powers and issues biannual evaluations of the police chief's performance.

''Usually when they give advice, you follow it," said Milwaukee police Sergeant Ken Henning.

But Sam Walker, a criminologist at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and one of the country's foremost authorities on police oversight boards, said that Milwaukee's board is not truly independent of the police department and has not produced many reforms. He also said that Phoenix's board does not have the investigatory powers that would make it fully independent of the police department.

McDevitt said he plans to ask Walker to consult on the Boston board's formation.

Walker, who has written several books on police accountability and oversight boards, said that two models for the boards have been effective. The first, which he calls the auditor model, is used by the Portland, Ore., police, as well as the Los Angeles County sheriff's office, the San Jose police, and Boise, Idaho, police.

Auditing boards have the authority to examine the policies and procedures of an entire department, Walker said, and also handle particularly egregious individual complaints.

Under the other model, the independent review board, a panel is restricted to investigating individual civilian complaints of police misconduct. New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco are among cities with those kinds of boards.

Walker said the auditor model is preferable. ''Handling individual complaints doesn't get at underlying problems," he said. ''You can frame it as the distinction between rotten apples and rotten barrels. If you only focus on apples and keep removing them, you'll replace them with new apples which will go bad. When we talk about rotten barrels we are talking about a culture of accountability."

Walker said the 11 auditor boards across the country have full access to police records.

In Portland, one of the cities with a model Walker has praised, seven paid staff members and nine citizen volunteers work out of the city auditor's office, where they make recommendations for policy changes to the chief of police and the City Council and can compel police to testify before them as they conduct investigations, said police spokesman Greg Pashley.

It is critical for an effective review board to have the power to subpoena witnesses and documents in their investigations, Walker said, but police unions have traditionally balked at giving boards that level of authority. But San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have boards with subpoena power.

Howard Friedman, a prominent civil rights lawyer in Boston, said the city should have a review board with teeth.

Friedman worked with the civilian review board created by the St. Clair Commission and said it was dysfunctional because it lacked real power. ''The system made no sense," Friedman said. ''The citizen appealed but the citizen never got to see the investigation" materials.

While he praised O'Toole for spearheading the effort to create a board, he worried about the political realities she confronts.

''The biggest question I have is: Is the police commissioner willing to take on police unions to fight for this," Friedman said. ''The police union is powerful and they won't support a candidate for mayor or City Council who doesn't support them in their opposition to civilian review."

Union officials did not return calls seeking comment yesterday, but McDevitt said he welcomes any input they may have. He said the union's views will help shape how powerful the board will be.
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