The Complaint Jar Runneth Over
Hundreds of citizens are waiting—and waiting—for the Boston Police Department to respond to allegations of wrongdoing. Will they ever get answers? —Edward Mason and Tom Mashberg
Shaun Joseph is a 33-year-old software engineer from Medford who takes a keen interest in world affairs. He’s also no fan of Donald Rumsfeld, former President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense and one of the architects of the Iraq war. So when Rumsfeld appeared to promote his memoirs at Boston’s Old South Meeting House on the night of September 26, 2011, Joseph was on hand outside with about 50 protesters.
Boston police officers provided security for the event, keeping an eye on the exuberant group as its members chanted, booed, and waved signs. Before the protest was over, Joseph was arrested and charged with assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. The police report claimed he assaulted the officer with his hands, feet, and teeth, using a “karate chop like maneuver.” Luckily for Joseph, onlookers had videotaped the scene and posted the footage online. The video made clear that the police report was mostly fiction: Joseph never used a karate chop during the encounter, and after being taken to the ground by police, he knelt in a docile position for about a minute while being handcuffed. Thanks in large part to the video, his case was dismissed in March 2013.
Joseph then did what the Boston Police Department encourages civilians to do when they have a beef with an officer: file a complaint with the department’s Internal Affairs Division. The IAD is supposed to investigate the allegation, keep the complainant posted on its progress, and—in theory—resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. A year later, Joseph is still waiting for action, as are hundreds of other civilians mired in a system that a veteran Boston police lawyer calls “pathetically slow.” According to department data, Boston police often take more than a year to close IAD matters, far longer than the 90 to 180 days many experts consider acceptable. When the complaint involves a particularly serious allegation, like unnecessary use of force, the cases routinely drag on long past two years.
As it turns out, this isn’t news: Despite decades of criticism and many studies aimed at speeding up IAD caseloads, the Boston Police Department still lacks something as basic as a timetable for resolving complaints. Since taking over in January as police commissioner, William Evans has focused on diversifying his leadership and getting guns off the streets. But the department has reached the point where it can no longer ignore the excessive time civilians are forced to wait for Internal Affairs to do its work. There’s a civilian-review board—the Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel, established by then-Mayor Thomas Menino in 2007 to review allegations of police misconduct—but it comes into play only if the IAD rules that citizen allegations are “unfounded” or “not sustained,” or if the officer is “exonerated.”
In Joseph’s case, and in hundreds of others, the IAD is simply not responding—or letting the cases drag on indefinitely. “It’s a major, major problem if a complaint investigation is delayed,” says Samuel Walker, a nationally recognized criminologist at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies police internal affairs units. Richard Kelliher, a retired Brookline town administrator who sits on the COOP oversight panel, agrees. “Evidence could change or not be available, or memories could fade to the point where witnesses can’t recall,” he says.
Kenneth Anderson, an attorney for members of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association who has handled hundreds of disciplinary cases over the past 15 years, has another way of describing the system: a mess. The process, he says, “has always been pathetically slow.” He says delays are also bad for police officers, who do not want allegations to hang over them, and that in cases in which an officer is disciplined, it has very little effect if it comes years after an offense. “Every now and then they give lip service to changes, but it never changes. It’s due to a lack of accountability from the top.”
No one believes investigations can be instantaneous: They require interviews with witnesses, getting officers time off to be questioned, and sending findings up the chain of command. Civilians cause delays. Accusations can be invented by suspects or come from chronic complainants. But with all the evidence gathered from Joseph’s court case, Dennis Kenney, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in New York, says the investigation should be “straightforward.”
We presented a detailed list of questions to the BPD on its process of internal investigations and the specifics of Joseph’s case. “Complaints are often prioritized, so some take longer than others,” says Sergeant Michael McCarthy, the department spokesman. “The Boston Police Department makes every effort to resolve citizen complaints in an efficient and expeditious manner. The police department is constantly looking to improve the process.”
Here’s what the numbers say. Between 2007 and 2012, nearly 700 formal complaints filed against Boston police officers went unresolved. The standard amount of time for a professional department to investigate complaints, determine whether they’re valid, and decide what discipline to take is 180 days—that’s according to a 2005 report by the Justice Department, with contributions from Boston police officials. But the Internal Affairs Division often doesn’t come close to hitting that mark. As of March 2012—when the most recent numbers were available—the BPD was missing that target by more than just a little bit. Of those nearly 700 pending cases, some 320 remained unresolved after a full year, and more than 100 were unresolved after two years. A few complaints lingered for more than four years.
The numbers are more alarming if we focus on the most serious offenses: the complaints against officers for using “unnecessary force.” As of March 2012, 113 of the 114 open cases sat unresolved for more than 180 days. Six of those were more than 1,000 days old. One use-of-force case filed in July 2007 was not resolved until January 2012. Also as of March 2012, 86 of 92 pending cases of civilian mistreatment, a separate category that generally involves non-physical abuse, had been open for more than 180 days.
We asked the department to tell us how many of the use-of-force and civilian-mistreatment cases still open as of March 2012 had been closed in the intervening two years. They didn’t say.
Not long ago, we went to see Shaun Joseph in the Arlington office of his lawyer, Myong Joun, a civil rights attorney who is representing him pro bono. A tall, bushy-haired Brown University graduate, Joseph holds a doctorate in applied mathematics and works for an online retailer in Cambridge. It angers him that stories falsely accusing him of karate-chopping a cop come up near the top when he is searched on Google. “You don’t even know how your reputation is affected by this kind of thing,” Joseph said.
But a year after Joseph’s case was closed, he’s still waiting for the BPD to rule on his allegations of wrongdoing by its officers. Back on April 2, 2013, soon after the charges against Joseph were dismissed, Joun was part of a delegation of civil rights lawyers who met with Boston police brass at headquarters to discuss IAD and the slow resolution of citizen complaints. After the session, Joun sought out a face-to-face talk with the chief of Internal Affairs, Superintendent Frank Mancini, and then-Commissioner Edward Davis. Joun mentioned the names of the two officers he was accusing of misconduct—Sergeant David O’Connor and Officer Luke Holbrook—and said he wanted action.
Joun said Mancini urged him to file a complaint. And so the next day, he did, submitting three witness videos of Joseph’s arrest. The videos showed clearly that, contrary to the police report written by O’Connor, there was no “karate chop,” Joseph clearly did not struggle, and police did not need the help of officers from other units to handcuff him. O’Connor, Joun wrote to Mancini, had “fabricated the entire incident,” adding that had there been no videotapes of the arrest, it would have been Joseph’s word against the officer’s—he might have faced jail time. Joun also alleged that Holbrook falsely claimed that he never took video of the protest. In his packet to Mancini, Joun included photographs of Holbrook, in uniform, videotaping outside the Rumsfeld event, although there is no indication that Holbrook taped the arrest itself. (Department rules prohibit officers from commenting on disciplinary cases. Mancini had no comment.)
Months went by, Joun said, and he heard nothing from the department. “It’s not that complicated,” he says. “Here you have two officers and the videos. You have the police report. I’m not sure what else you need.” When there was still no response by the end of October, Joun wrote to Mancini requesting an update. On November 21, Sergeant Detective Jose Lozano finally emailed Joun saying he’d been assigned to investigate the complaint and asked if Joseph and Joun would come to headquarters for an interview. Joun declined, saying his letter and videos were sufficient. In a bizarre twist, Lozano wrote back to Joun on December 6 in an email, saying, “Please review the following YouTube recordings for your own edification.” Lozano’s email contained links to the very videos Joun had provided in the first place. Dismayed, Joun did not write back. “I’m not even sure what that means,” he says, adding, “I’m waiting for some sort of response or finding to their investigation.”