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In Lowell, 'Discipline' For Police Misconduct Doesn't Go Far Enough

A new report faults Lowell Police in the death of a 31-year-old woman being held in custody. The officers responsible might get "disciplined" -- but Eileen McNamara says they should be prosecuted. (davidsonscott15/flickr)
A new report faults Lowell Police in the death of a 31-year-old woman being held in custody. The officers responsible might get "disciplined" -- but Eileen McNamara says they should be prosecuted. (davidsonscott15/flickr)

Let’s withhold kudos for candor from the Lowell Police Department until it fires the officers responsible for the deliberate, negligent treatment of a 31-year-old woman who died in their custody 13 months ago.

Middlesex County prosecutors did not even try to indict them for involuntary manslaughter. The least the City of Lowell can do is fire them.

The department’s just released internal report of events surrounding the death of Alyssa Brame is blunt in its assessment of the rank incompetence and callous indifference of seven officers and civilian employees the night the homeless woman was picked up for prostitution.

in Massachusetts, history suggests police officers guilty of misconduct are more likely to face a wrist slap than a judge or a pink slip.

"Some Lowell police employees displayed, in my opinion, conduct which could be described as deliberate indifference for Ms. Brame and that such conduct should shock the conscience of us all," Lowell Police Supt. William Taylor wrote to the department last week. "Throughout this process, we have kept the family of Ms. Brame in our thoughts."

Good, but not nearly good enough.

Determining that Brame was too drunk to be booked on Jan. 12, 2013, Taylor’s employees ignored their training, myriad state laws and departmental regulations and failed to summon medical help. Instead, they dumped the by-then-unconscious woman onto a bench in a holding cell where she would lay ignored for more than an hour before she died of acute alcohol poisoning.

Taylor met with Brame’s mother and apologized. Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan suggested better police training. City Manager Bernard F. Lynch promised closed-door hearings to consider disciplinary action. But, in Massachusetts, history suggests police officers guilty of misconduct are more likely to face a wrist slap than a judge or a pink slip.

Ryan, for one, declared Brame’s death “accidental” in a report that said police conduct did not “rise to the level of wanton and reckless conduct that would support or warrant criminal charges.” Even though Lt. Thomas Siopes, the officer in charge that night, misled investigators about her condition. Even though officers failed to check on Brame every 30 minutes as legally required. Even though Siopes has said he sees no reason, even now, to reconsider his decision not to call an ambulance.

“If your child came home drunk and collapsed in front of you and you went off to watch TV or play video games, which is what, in effect, these officers did, you would be indicted,” said Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights attorney who often represents survivors in police misconduct cases, including this one. Impressed as he is that Taylor acknowledged the department’s negligence, Friedman noted that real accountability in police misconduct cases is harder to come by.

A New Bedford case is typical. After a man succumbed to a drug overdose while in police custody on July 22, 2010, a review board recommended discipline for five police officers that ranged from a six-month suspension to termination. Investigators had determined that officers did nothing while 42-year-old Erik Aguilar overdosed. They did not intervene until the handcuffed man had been motionless for nine minutes, inaction that an internal report labeled "an embarrassing disgrace to the New Bedford Police Department and a case of absolute negligence..."

Those disciplinary cases were resolved last year. The five officers all received four-day suspensions without pay.

The outcomes are even more lopsided in favor of the police when officers are involved in deadly shootings. Of the 73 people killed by police in Massachusetts since 2002 — 12 of them last year alone — all but one resulted in no discipline against the officers, according to an examination of those cases by Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth magazine.

Quality policing cannot exist if citizens can’t trust that the police who are sworn to protect them use excessive force and lie about their actions.

U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz

District attorneys in Massachusetts are responsible for investigating police shootings, an inherent conflict of interest that helps explain why prosecutors invariably deem such deadly shootings “justified.”

Victims of police misconduct might need to look beyond the commonwealth’s legal system to find justice. This week, a jury did convict Shawn Coughlin, 47, of beating a handcuffed drunken driving suspect and then doctoring his incident reports to cover the crimes he committed when he was a Plymouth police sergeant.

“Quality policing cannot exist if citizens can’t trust that the police who are sworn to protect them use excessive force and lie about their actions. It is very important to our entire system of justice that individuals who violate that trust are held accountable,” U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said after the verdict in federal court.

Had Massachusetts prosecutors only felt the same, there might have been some justice for Alyssa Brame.

Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara is the author of "Eunice, The Kennedy Who Changed the World."

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