HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States

Civilian Review
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Although the St. Clair Commission report did not endorse a strong civilian review mechanism, it found that, "...given the disturbing results of our case review and the profound lack of confidence and trust the community expressed in the department's current methods of handling citizen complaints, we believe the public must be given access into the system for it to work properly."6 St. Clair recommended the creation of a Community Affairs Board (CAB), made up of police officers and community members, to review investigations by IAD and, when warranted, to return the cases for further investigation. The CAB was created in 1992, and it may review IAD investigations and, if requested by a complainant, may review the conduct of a disciplinary hearing when a complaint is sustained by IAD. The CAB has five members representing the community and "police interests," who serve without remuneration. The CAB does not receive initial complaints.

If IAD does not sustain a complaint, the complainant has fourteen calendar days to request a CAB review. The CAB is limited to examining investigative techniques only, and cannot deal with a complaint's substance; it does not investigate complaints, but sends them back to IAD if its members agree with the complainant that an investigation was not thorough. Neither CAB's deliberative meetings nor its findings are made public.

If a complaint is sustained and a disciplinary hearing is held to determine the sanction appropriate for the officer involved, the complainant may appeal to the CAB if he or she believes the disciplinary hearing was conducted in an unfair manner. The appeal request must be submitted within seven days of the conclusion of the hearing. According to a CAB representative, such appeals are rare, and she knew of none since 1995.7

In response to pressure from citizens in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston after misconduct complaints increased in that minority community, and following a mistaken SWAT raid on seventy-five-year-old Rev. Accelyne Williams's home on March 24, 1994, the mayor vowed to make improvements in the CAB's operations. During the raid on the wrong house, officers chased Williams into a bedroom and handcuffed him; he then had a heart attack and died. The mayor and police chief acknowledged a mistake, thus alleviating tensions. On April 23, 1996, the city paid $1 million to the wife of Rev. Williams in a wrongful death suit.8 People in the community pushed for a new civilian review agency, but Mayor Thomas Menino would only promise an improved CAB. City Councilor Charles C. Yancey stated, "I do not believe community residents are comfortable saying the police can police themselves."9 Menino offered to hire new people and placed the CAB under the city's Office of Civil Rights. In an attempt to defend the CAB's record, Menino compared it to Washington, D.C.'s failed and backlogged civilian review board. He stated that he was proud that "over the last couple of years more than 30 cases have come before our board."10 Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty, head of the Bureau of Internal Investigations, which includes IAD, had to correct the mayor and noted that, as of mid-1994, the CAB had heard sixteen cases, not thirty. 11

The CAB is generally considered irrelevant, or worse, among police abuse experts in Boston. Attorneys who specialize in police misconduct civil cases explain that in order to make a successful appeal, a complainant must have information from IAD files which are not accessible to the complainant or the public. The process is underutilized, with the IAD reporting that the CAB received just twenty-three complaints in its first year, referring three to IAD as needing more investigation. According to IAD, CAB had received only six appeal requests during 1995.12 Internal Investigations Superintendent Doherty agreed that improved community outreach regarding CAB was necessary, and stated that a paid CAB staff position was under consideration.13 Doherty stated that she opposed enhanced civilian review because the police department should be responsible for setting standards, holding officers accountable, and disciplining those who commit offenses.14

6 St. Clair Commission report, p. v.

7 Telephone interview, Victoria Williams, CAB, October 28, 1997. At least one police abuse expert in the city told Human Rights Watch he believed complainants were not allowed, as a rule, to attend entire disciplinary hearings - making such an appeal unlikely - while a representative of the Bureau of Internal Investigations stated that complainants may attend but often choose not to for a variety of reasons.

8 "Boston to give victim's widow $1 million in wrongful death suit," New York Times, April 25, 1996.

9 Adrian Walker and Chris Black, "Police criticized as Menino vows better oversight,"Boston Globe, May 18, 1994.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Telephone interview, Victoria Williams, CAB, October 28, 1997. In October 1997, Human Rights Watch attempted to obtain information about 1996 CAB appeals, but the CAB representative said the numbers were not then available and failed to provide them subsequently.

13 Telephone interview, Bureau of Internal Investigations Superintendent Doherty, January 30, 1998.

14 Ibid.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch