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

Dissatisfaction with the BPD’s Internal Affairs Division goes back decades. In 1992, the St. Clair Commission—a high-profile panel formed to investigate Boston policing practices in the aftermath of the bungled Carol DiMaiti Stuart murder investigation—found that detectives did not take allegations of police wrongdoing seriously. The IAD process, the report said, was “unfairly skewed against those bringing a complaint” and was “characterized by shoddy, halfhearted investigations, lengthy delays, and inadequate documentation and record-keeping.” In 2009, a study commissioned by the city and conducted by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government concluded that Bostonians deeply distrusted the IAD. Researchers found that just seven of 116 people who were eligible to appeal the outcomes of their complaints to the civilian review board COOP actually chose to do so. Large majorities of respondents said that they did not understand their rulings, and that their complaints were not investigated professionally and were not completed in a timely manner. Almost half said they were unaware they were entitled to an appeal.

So what would a solution look like? One approach that has been urged upon Boston again and again, but has not been tried, is the use of third-party mediation. Mediation is based on a particular premise: that most civilians do not file a complaint in order to get a police officer fired, but instead just want to be heard. So typically it goes like this: The officer and the civilian meet with a third-party mediator to discuss the complaint. The benefit, then, would be to clear less-severe cases more quickly, and free up more time for investigators to tackle the big cases. Walker, the criminologist, who has written about mediation for the Department of Justice, describes the process as getting cop and civilian in a room for an hour to talk about what happened. It’s a procedure, he says, that is faster and less costly than a full-blown internal investigation. “There’s no admission of guilt,” he says. “Each side says their own piece and you have to listen.” Typically, complaints of abusive language or unprofessional behavior are eligible for mediation, while allegations of unnecessary force remain with Internal Affairs.

Mediation is not a new idea, nor a foreign one: It’s been implemented in Washington, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose. A Northeastern University report published in 2005—commissioned by the BPD itself at a cost of $60,000—recommended that the city mediate less-serious allegations to hasten resolutions. In 2007, the city itself issued a report encouraging mediation. But seven years on, there’s no sign it is any closer to implementing those recommendations.

Whether or not mediation takes hold, the negative reviews of Boston’s IAD keep rolling in. In October 2012, when Davis was still in command, BPD brass received yet another report, this one prepared by Strategic Policy Partnership, at a cost of $25,000. The report raised questions about how thoroughly Internal Affairs detectives investigate claims. In an interview before the report was issued, Davis said of the IAD’s efficiency, “The problem is the length of time.”


The Boston Police Department’s internal citizen-complaint system can take so long to run its course that it may be easier for victims to simply sue the city. Consider the case of Maury Paulino, of Dorchester. Paulino was 19 when in 2009 he went to the Dudley Square police station to bail out a friend. Outside the station, Paulino said, he felt that officers were harassing his friend, so he took out his cell phone and began videotaping Detective Seth Richard and some others. Paulino was arrested by Richard and, he claimed, beaten and pepper-sprayed by the detective. The officers charged Paulino with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, illegal wiretapping, and assaulting a police officer. He was tried and found not guilty in April 2011.

Paulino had planned to file an IAD complaint against the detective, but his lawyers advised him to sue instead. Their message: “They’ll just question you a lot, and won’t do nothing.” Paulino took the advice and filed a civil rights suit in November 2011. As is its practice when lawsuits are filed, the BPD then launched its own investigation and asked to speak to Paulino. He declined until, in June 2012, his suit was settled for $33,000. At that point, Paulino’s lawyer said he offered to make Paulino available to investigators, but that the department never responded.

There’s no easy way to determine how much these types of lawsuits are costing the city every year. But complaints by civilians that Internal Affairs probes are not thorough sometimes turn up in the lawsuits themselves. Steven Hooks sued in September 2011, alleging that Officer Sean Deery had slammed his head against a car and then tossed him into a police wagon while handcuffed. Hooks’s lawyers contended that the department’s “policy or custom of tolerating a ‘code of silence’ or ‘blue wall’” demonstrated that police did not seriously investigate civilian allegations. In 2013, Hooks settled for $85,000.

In 2012, the city paid $1.4 million to a Middlesex County corrections officer, Michael O’Brien, who claimed his rough arrest by Officer David Williams had left him brain-damaged. The Internal Affairs unit charged with investigating the claim failed to ask basic questions, the department found after an internal review. The unit was required to undergo retraining, and the probe was relaunched, leading to Williams’s dismissal, court records show. (In June 2013, Williams was reinstated by an independent arbitrator—a decision the city is fighting.)

Back at his office in Arlington, attorney Myong Joun said he, too, usually recommends that clients sue rather than go through the aggravation of an IAD probe. But he took Shaun Joseph’s case believing that it was a clear-cut way to test Internal Affairs—a test the IAD, he says, has failed. “They say a lot of good things,” he said, “but I haven’t seen any real change. Internal Affairs, in my mind, is dysfunctional. It’s clear to me it’s not working.”

Joseph shared his lawyer’s frustration. “It shouldn’t be on me to have to initiate this process and have a lawyer who’ll push it along,” he said. “Police have tremendous power—they can mess up somebody’s life, like they did mine. You can’t just go around arresting people, have it hang over them for a year and a half, and kick it down the road for another year and a half.”


This article was funded in part by the George Polk Grants for Investigative Reporting at Long Island University.