In the tumultuous times in which we currently live, police reform has become a hot topic for debate, but it’s often unclear what “reform” will actually look like. However, a task force in Boston has a specific plan: installing an independent office to investigate police misconduct.
In recent months, the task force has held two sessions that were open to the public and were designed to hear the opinions of residents. More than 120 people showed up in person to give their thoughts at these sessions, and the task force received another 73 written comments.
Based on the feedback from all those people, the task force has called for the Boston P.D. to create an independent office of police accountability and transparency (OPAT) with “full investigatory and subpoena power.” This new proposed group would replace the current community oversight panel.
This new office would include a civilian review board whose duty is to investigate complaints against police from members of the public, as well as an internal affairs oversight panel that would be able to audit completed internal investigations and review as many as needed.
Task force members told MassLive Media that the civilian review board will have between seven and 11 members, and it will function like any other city office. Mayor Marty Walsh will appoint the people who serve on it, but the City Council — with input from the public — will select candidates, and the president of the City Council will be able to recommend two of the candidates in the pool.
Other members of the new office would be nominated by civil rights organizations, neighborhood associations or other Boston stakeholder groups. Acting law enforcement officers would not be eligible for selection. Members of the task force maintain that the board will function independently from the city.
“If the public does not have confidence in this [board], I think the mayor’s office will hear about it,” task force member Allison Cartwright said.
Task force members said the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, the largest police union in the city, was not consulted during the process of creating this proposal and was not involved in drafting the recommendations within it.
“The association has a seat at the table whenever a contract is negotiated,” task force member and former state Rep. Marie P. St. Fleur said. “It’s not often that the public has a voice in the process.”
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP and a member of the task force, said that they wanted to find an inclusive way of building the public’s voice into city government without major changes to the structure of the government itself. Mayor Walsh will still have the final say in who is able to serve on the oversight panel.
“I want to be clear that this was not an easy process,” Sullivan said. “And when it came down to drill down on these final recommendations, they really do reflect a weekslong diligent review of documents, analysis, and again, debate. It should not be perceived in any way this task force was of one mind at the outset.”
The proposal of this new independent office was the most significant reform put forth by the task force, but it was not the only one. It called on the Boston P.D. to “adopt data and record practices that maximize accountability, transparency and public access” to its records and data. It also reviewed the department’s policies on use of force and recommended rigorous implicit bias training for officers, an expansion of the agency’s body camera program, and a continued ban on facial recognition software, among other things.
All the task force’s recommendations looked to “enhance enforceability, accountability, trust and transparency, and should improve the relationship between the BPD and Boston community that it serves and protects.”
The dialogue surrounding police reform in Boston began after the death of George Floyd. After the public outcry that was sparked by Floyd’s death, Walsh declared racism a public health crisis and moved to reallocate 20% of the Boston P.D.’s fiscal year 2021 overtime budget — about $12 million — to be “invested instead in community programs for youth, for homelessness, for people struggling with the effects of inequality.”