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

Police Administration/
Internal Affairs Division

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The St. Clair Commission was outraged by the quality of IAD investigations and by the absence of a department-wide performance appraisal system. Since the report, the IAD restructured in 1992 and has doubled its staff, to sixteen. According to the 1996 Boston Police Department's Annual Report, it received: 460 complaints of all types in 1990, 447 in 1991, 378 in 1992, 271 in 1993, 221 in 1994, 248 in 1995, and 231 in 1996.15 In 1997, the department reported receiving 166 complaints.16 In 1996, 22 percent of the complaints alleged the "use of force," but there are other categories that could include excessive force, including violation of rights and violation of criminal law.17 According to the 1996 Annual Report, 28 percent of the complaints filed in 1996 were sustained (with 23 percent pending), a relatively high sustained rate that may be explained by a significant number of internally generated complaints, which are typically sustained at a higher rate.18 The report does not provide disposition statistics broken down by type of complaint, or any information regarding disciplinary measures taken against officers named insustained complaints. The report does not provide age or race information regarding complainants or districts from which complaints are initiated.

Because the police and CAB both reveal so little information to the public, tracking specific cases and thus evaluating the department's disciplinary practices cannot be done systematically. Anecdotal evidence reinforces concerns about police department oversight of its officers' conduct, however. For example, following a 1988 beating of a suspect by thirteen officers after a vehicle pursuit, the state attorney general's office intervened and claimed the police had "stonewalled" the investigation.19 A Superior Court judge noted that the intervention was necessary, "because police officers are not likely to regulate police conduct...."20 The attorney general's office and the police department agreed to penalties for the officers approved by a judge, including retraining on civil rights issues, on truth-telling, and on the appropriate use of force, and the department was required to submit regular reports about the named officers for two years. But, according to press accounts, the department filed only one report in 1994, despite reminders from the attorney general's office; meanwhile, some of the thirteen officers have been promoted.

The St. Clair Commission report found that "IAD files revealed a disturbing pattern of allegations of violence toward citizens by a small number of officers."21 In the random sampling of IAD files reviewed by the commission, 49 percent of officers with new complaints against them in 1989-90 had previously been the object of complaints, 17 percent had no prior complaints, and in 34 percent of the cases this could not be determined (due in part to the poor records kept by IAD). When incomplete files are excluded, 74 percent of officers accused of abuse had prior complaints. Among officers with prior records of complaints, the median number of prior complaints was three. Of the 134 officers who were the object of previous complaints, thirteen (10 percent) had more than ten previous complaints; this small group of thirteen officers had generated an incredible total of 246 complaints. Very few of these complaints had been sustained.

The St. Clair Commission drew highly critical conclusions from these alarming statistics and that fact that they had been ignored by police managers. The commission's report stated: "The failure to monitor and evaluate the performance of police officers - particularly those with established patterns of alleged misconduct - is a major deficiency in the management of the department and an unnecessarilydangerous situation for the citizens of the City of Boston. No police department and no community should tolerate a situation where officers with long records of alleged misconduct, including some with histories of alleged physical abuse of citizens, remain on the street largely unidentified and unsupervised."22

During 1997, three officers received more than three complaints, six had three complaints, and fifteen were the subject of two complaints during the year; 94 percent of the force received no complaints.23 Under the early intervention system, any officer with three or more complaints during a two-year period, no matter the disposition, is identified.24 The IAD and the officer's commander discuss complaints, talk with the officer about how he or she is dealing with people, and he or she is urged to stay professional. This type of "consulting" happens with each complaint within the police complaints system thereafter against said officer. Inexplicably, however, complaints reflected through civil lawsuits filed or settled or awarded against an officer are not used as part of the EIS, and do not trigger investigations.25

The complaints process, prior to IAD's restructuring in 1992, allowed for too much discretion for district supervisors in deciding whether an allegation is well-founded before giving a report to the commander, who then forwarded it to IAD. IAD also lacked the personnel to carry out investigations of all complaints it received directly from internal sources or the public, so the initial, and sometimes the entire, investigation was handled by the supervisor of the accused officer - a situation problematic on its face, since the supervisor may be personally close to the individual or may not want to reflect poorly on his own supervisory skills by acknowledging misconduct on the part of his or her underling. Furthermore, district supervisors described the process as "awkward" because, if they investigated an officer in their district, they had no power to control the disciplinary sanctions that could arise as a result. In district investigations of misconduct, most claim that the IAD was merely a "rubber stamp" on the district's findings.

IAD received harsh criticism from the St. Clair Commission for biased, shoddy investigations and an unusually low sustained rate: "it appears that the department seldom, if ever, believes allegations of police misconduct by Boston's citizens."26 The IAD files themselves had incomplete or missing forms, were disorganized with no checklist for file contents, and almost 80 percent of files examined by the St. Clair Commission had no record indicating whether non-police department witnesses or the alleged victim had been interviewed.

Despite the post- St. Clair Commission reforms, complainants contend that the investigations drag on for long periods, with some complainants believing the department just hopes they will give up and drop the complaint over time. Complainants also report that investigators and the department do not advise them about the progress of the investigation or even give details about its outcome. IAD claims it stays in close contact with complainants throughout the process, yet staff acknowledge that the final letter to a complainant does not inform as to what discipline, if any, will be applied to the officer if the complaint has been sustained. IAD now investigates excessive force allegations, and it reviews all investigations conducted by districts.27 After its investigation, IAD can find the complaint sustained, not sustained, unfounded, filed (if the complainant fails to pursue the complaint), or exonerate the officer's actions as within policy. If the complaint is sustained, the IAD report to the commissioner notes prior complaints, with findings, against the named officer; only previously sustained complaints can be used in determining appropriate disciplinary sanction. If the commissioner in turn sustains the complaint, the case is referred to the legal advisor's office and to a hearing officer to prepare for a disciplinary hearing. If the hearing officer finds against the officer, the officer has the option of appeal through the civil service system and the courts. If the officer prevails, or if the complainant is unhappy with a finding other than sustained, he or she has the option of appealing through the CAB (yet such appeals are rare and unlikely to succeed, as explained above).

The St. Clair Commission recommended that the department have IAD handle all complaints from the outset; maintain a centralized personnel computer system; develop written handbooks in several languages about the way the complaint system works; recruit improved IAD staff, with incentives to include a choice of next assignment; enforce a ninety-day deadline on the investigation and resolution of civilian complaints; conduct hearings, review, and disciplinary sanctions, if warranted, of officers involved in the Stuart abuses; develop the EIS; and formalize the organization of "shooting teams "to investigate shootings involving the police. By 1996, the department claimed it had implemented all of the St. Clair recommendations.28

In an interview with Human Rights Watch, Bureau of Internal Investigations Superintendent Ann Marie Doherty stated that police misconduct could be curtailed by more rigorous screening of new recruits, improved supervision, and training that emphasizes good decision-making in situations when some force may be justified.29 Doherty also noted that officers need to feel comfortable coming forward to report incidents of misconduct by fellow officers. She states that she has also tried to work with the police union to make agreements with some officers to hold discipline in abeyance if there is an underlying problem that would not be addressed by discipline, such as the need for counseling or alcohol or drug treatment. If the officer fails to meet the terms of the agreement to get help, the department will move to dismiss him or her.30

The department's efforts at improvement have been questioned in some serious cases, however. One, in 1995, involved the beating of a black police officer in plainclothes and others involve police officers' violent treatment of wives and girlfriends.

Officer Michael A. Cox, who is black, was on duty and in plainclothes when he joined the pursuit of a murder suspect in the early morning hours of January 25, 1995. As Cox chased the suspect, he claimed uniformed officers grabbed him and beat him severely, apparently believing that he was a suspect as well. He was transported by ambulance from the scene to the hospital and treated for large contusions on his head, lacerations on his face and lips, a concussion, and kidney damage. He reportedly missed six months of work while recovering.31

The officers accused of the beating gave wildly inconsistent versions of the incident, initially contending that Cox was either not at the scene or that he was nothurt. The two dozen other officers present at the end of the chase denied seeing Cox at all, or claimed they were not near him at the time of the beating. Some of the officers present passed on the rumor that Cox had sustained his injuries after falling on a patch of ice, yet no original source for this contention was identified.

More than three years after the incident, the officers identified by Cox as the assailants have not been disciplined by police officials or charged criminally.32 The internal investigation has been widely criticized; for example, the suspect who was chased by Cox has claimed that he saw the other officers beating Cox, yet he had not been questioned by investigators as a witness.33 Federal and local prosecutors intervened two years after the incident, bringing a perjury indictment against one of the officers who was present during the Cox beating and gave a particularly unbelievable account of the incident; the same officer was also suspended.34 Cox has filed a civil lawsuit, which is pending at the time of this writing.

IAD has also been criticized for its handling of domestic violence complaints filed by the wives and girlfriends of Boston police officers.35 Jacobs, "Women say their abusers had badges," Boston Globe, July 3, 1994.0 Superintendent Doherty acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that the most common reason police officers are arrested is for domestic violence and that those cases often do not lead to convictions.36 Indeed, as part of a review of the department to identify those convicted of domestic violence charges in order to comply with a new federal law,only one or two officers may be dismissed, with six officers on modified duty pending the outcome of investigations into alleged domestic violence.37

In response to critics who claim that officers protect each other in these cases, the Bureau of Internal Investigation's Doherty has told the press, "We're [officers are] extraordinarily sensitive to domestic violence, and we deal with it as aggressively on the inside as the outside."38 Yet she acknowledged to reporters that the department did not know the number of cases of domestic violence because it did not classify the complaints under a single category.39 Compounding the problem is that a restraining order against a police officer may not be reported to the police department if the officer lives in a community outside the force's own jurisdiction. The officer's superior may not know that an order has been issued.40 According to an IAD representative, it is not the responsibility of other jurisdictions to report officers involved in domestic violence, but instead such reporting is incumbent upon the involved officer.41 If the department becomes aware of incidents of domestic violence, an investigation may ensue to determine whether the officer was involved in "conduct unbecoming an officer" or other rules violations.42

15 Boston Police Department, 1996 Annual Report, p. 22.

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

17 Ibid. and telephone interview, Lt. Kevin Averill, IAD, October 16, 1997. It was unclear why "use of force" is a category for violations, since officers are allowed to use force appropriately.

18 Boston Police Department, 1996 Annual Report., p. 26. Internally generated complaints (of undefined types) rose from 11 percent of the total in 1991 to 27 percent in 1996. 1997 figure provided in a telephone interview with Superintendent Doherty, January 30, 1998.

19 Dick Lehr, "Department unwilling to face brutal facts," Boston Globe, December 8, 1997.

20 Ibid.

21 St. Clair Commission report, p. iv.

22 Ibid., p. 114.

23 Telephone interview, Superintendent Doherty, January 30, 1998.

24 Approximately thirty officers were the subject of two or more complaints during 1996, a decrease from previous years, according to the department's 1996 annual report. According to the 1995 annual report, thirty-eight officers were the subject of two or more complaints during that year. The information provided does not show the overlap between years of "repeat" offenders on the force or the types of complaints.

25 Telephone interview, Lt. Kevin Averill, October 28, 1997.

26 St. Clair Commission report, p. 115.

27 Telephone interview, Lt. Kevin Averill, October 16, 1997.

28 Brian MacQuarrie, "Probe of police belies relatively good record," Boston Globe, February 12, 1996. In a January 1998 interview, Superintendent Doherty confirmed that IAD had implemented all of the St. Clair Commission recommendations relating to internal affairs procedures.

29 Telephone interview, Superintendent Doherty, January 30, 1998.

30 Ibid.

31 John Ellement, "Detective files suit vs. fellow officers, Boston Globe, December 13, 1995; Dick Lehr, "Years after beating, officer has seen no help from colleagues," Boston Globe, December 8, 1997. The Globe examined internal investigative files to piece together this incident and the subsequent inquiry.

32 After these allegations, Officer Cox, who is now a detective sergeant, reports that his car's tires were slashed and that he received repeated hang-up calls at night. He has since been assigned to the internal affairs unit.

33 The supervising sergeant during the Cox incident, who also filed an inconsistent report, was later transferred to the anti-corruption unit responsible for investigating the case. The internal affairs unit, and the department more generally, have fought efforts to make any information about the Cox case public. Documents requested in a civil lawsuit were not turned over until a federal judge threatened to find the city in default.

34 Telephone interview, Superintendent Doherty, January 30, 1998. Doherty confirmed that the officer had been indicted on perjury charges.

35 Sally Jacobs, "Women say their abusers had badges," Boston Globe, July 3, 1994. In one case, a sergeant was charged with stalking his former girlfriend and threatening to kill her and her children in June 1994. According to reports, during his fifteen year career, he was the subject of six complaints: two for verbally abusing women, one for alcohol use, and three for excessive force.

0 The harshest penalty was a one-day suspension after a fellow officer complained about his behavior.

36 Telephone interview, Superintendent Doherty, January 30, 1998.

37 Ibid.

38 Jacobs, "Women say their abusers...," Boston Globe.

39 Ibid.

40 Ibid. and Lynda Gorov, "No unusual trend seen in officers' behavior," Boston Globe, March 9, 1993.

41 Telephone interview, Lt. Kevin Averill, October 28, 1997.

42 Ibid.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch