The City Council Committee on Government Operations held a hearing on September 8 regarding an ordinance establishing a Civilian Review Board in the City.
Sponsored by Councilors Andrea Campbell, Ricardo Arroyo, and Julia Mejia, the ordinance calls for the creation of this kind of board to increase transparency and accountability within the Boston Police Department (BPD).
Committee Chair Councilor Lydia Edwards said that the administration wrote a letter to the committee saying that the ordinance “requires significant discussion and analysis,” and that they would be present at the hearing taking notes but would not be an active participant during the hearing, which upset some councilors.
Councilor Campbell said that “for decades,” many attempts to create a Civilian Review Board have been made but nothing has ever come to fruition.
While she applauded the work of the new Boston Police Reform Task Force, she said that the “mayor has had numerous opportunities to work with me and this body. This legislation would be a big step in the City of Boston…” She said that the proposed ordinance would establish a board to replace the existing Community Ombudsman Oversight Panel (CO-OP) “to make it stronger and more effective” and give it “independence from the Police Department.”
The City’s existing CO-OP “reviews appeals made with the Boston Police over internal investigations cases” through a group of civilians who “have experience in law and criminal justice,” according to the City’s website. But many people have expressed that they feel this panel does not go far enough in terms of efficacy and transparency in responding to complaints.
Councilor Mejia said her goal is to “focus on the process. Unless we get this right and we lead with the people, this is just going to be another layer of government that people will fight to get attention from or just flat out ignore.”
Several panelists were invited to the hearing to provide their perspective on the situation, including Jonathan Darsche and Yojaira Alvarez of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).
Darsche is the CCRB’s Executive Director, and provided some insight on how this board operates with the nation’s largest police force.
He said that the CCRB has existed in New York in its current form as an independent agency in 1993, and is comprised of 15 board members appointed by different entities. “The city charter gives us our jurisdiction,” which includes investigating allegations of excessive force, abuse of authority, discourtesy, and obscene and offensive language. He said the body also has subpoena power, and receives around 5000 complaints per year.
Darsche also mentioned a Youth Advisory Council, which was established in 2018 and is a “source of insight about issues representing youth,” he said.
Yojaira Alvarez, Director of Outreach and Intergovernmental Affairs for the CCRB, added that the CCRB is the “only civilian oversight agency in the US with its own Administrative Persecution Unit (APU).”
She said there are three ways for people to report police misconduct: call the CCRB, visit its office, or file a complaint online.
After conducting a thorough investigation, there are four possible case dispositions: substantiated, unsubstantiated, unfounded, and exonerated. If a complaint is found to be substantiated, Alvarez said that discipline ranges from instructions to formalized training to command discipline to charges.
“NYC is lightyears ahead of us in terms of where we should be with respect to police accountability and oversight,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal of Lawyers for Civil Rights. He said that Lawyers for Civil Rights has been “fielding calls for more transparency for the CO-OP in Boston.
“I urge you to move in this direction,” he told the Council, referencing the Civilian Review Board. “We cannot wait for police officers to police themselves.”
Rep. Russell Holmes said he would like to reinforce that the CO-OP does not have “teeth.” He said “if this can be done in such a large police staff in New York…then certainly we can get it done in Boston.”
Larry Mayes, who served on the COP-OP, said that a factor of the proposed ordinance that he likes is having a clear process of when a citizen makes a complaint to coming to a resolution.
“I think that is a critical process piece that cannot be ignored,” he said. He said that in his experience on the CO-OP, it was often two years after a complaint had been filed that a person was actually provided with a resolution.
“Memories fade on both the police side and the citizen making the complaint,” he said. The “point of complaint to when a citizen gets an answer is critical.”
He said that having a separate place to make a complaint where a person can feel safe and be heard, such as a community center or a place at City Hall, would be beneficial to the community. “The police department is not the only place to go to make a complaint,” he said.
BPD Sgt. Eddy Chrispin said that he has “heard a lot of conversation around police legislaitive reform, and we’re not part of the conversation.”
He said he believes it is “crucial that people have context and insight into our job and why we do the things we do,” and stressed the importance of impartiality on the Civilian Review Board. He said it is “important that we don’t allow people who have clearly expressed wide ranging dislike; disdain for police to be on this board.”
He said that as a police officer and “also as a Black man who is the father of two Black sons, I think I understand the need for reform in policing. We are very happy to be part of the conversation because…all too often not only are we left out of the conversation as police officers but as Black men who walk through life primarily as Black men. All too often people see police officers as being anti-reform. We welcome reform, [and] want to deal with the issues that we see as problematic in policing.”
BPD officer David Hernandez said that “for generations, there has been a lot of mistrust of police in communities of color which is why we are where we are right now. We want to be part of the change…”
He said that as a person of color, “we felt voiceless as people of color inside of the department,” but he said he was grateful to be able to speak at the hearing.
“We are clearly behind the times,” he said. “I know that we have these issues.” He said that there is a concern about “officers’ due process rights and their ability to appeal the findings from the Civilian Review Board,” and doesn’t believe that police officers “should be entitled to any less due process.”
Darwin Saravia, a student in Boston, testified at the hearing and represented the youth of Boston, saying that it’s ¡°hard to speak up when you feel like the whole world is against you. This ordinance creates opportunities for these injustices to be heard.”
Councilor Edwards finished the hearing by saying that “this is not a question of good or bad police. This is a question of open and transparent process. For many people, the current process is not bringing that.”
She said that gaining public trust “when police officers don’t do their job” and creating a process of transparency to make sure that “the system will actually work to protect people” is her vision for the Civilian Review Board.
She said many topics discussed at this hearing will be further discussed in a working session, including subpoena powers, independent structure, independent access, disciplinary recommendations, language access, appointment powers, “constant and consistent data collection,” how much this will cost and where the money will come from, audit powers, and how to include young people who have complaints about police conduct.
She agreed with Sgt. Chrispin that having a board of people who come from a “perspective that is not solely anti-police” will be important.
“There will be a working session that comes up and looks at these points,” Edwards said. “We are accepting testimony all the time.”