Boston city councilors approved a new independent office that will investigate and provide oversight of the Boston police department.
The Office of Police Accountability and Transparency was recommended by the police reform task force convened by Mayor Marty Walsh this summer. It will include a civilian review board and internal affairs oversight panel that will investigate citizen complaints and internal police investigations. The watchdog office will have subpoena power to compel witnesses and documents, unlike other similar boards the city has tried.
All of the councilors, except for Councilor Frank Baker, voted for the measure. Walsh will have to sign the ordinance for it to go into effect, though the council has a veto-proof majority.
After working through the summer, the task force made its recommendations in October, and Walsh said he would adopt all of them, from expanding the body camera program to all uniformed officers, to forming a new diversity and inclusion office in the department, and creating an online dashboard detailing department data, including use of force and deaths in custody.
The city council was already weighing its own version of a citizen review board, and the ordinance voted on Wednesday is a merger of the two, with the council pushing for a third member recommended by councilors, and a youth delegate.
Councilor Andrea Campbell, who filed the council's civilian review board ordinance, said having a strong oversight board is major step forward toward eliminating racial disparities in the city.
"I have always said, this is not about individual officers," she said. "This is about transforming a system that from its inception has been biased and disproportionately harmed Black and brown people in this country."
The civilian review board will also make disciplinary recommendations. The police commissioner will have the final say, but if he or she does not follow the recommendation, the commissioner will have to report back and explain why.
That is similar to how New York City's civilian review board operates. But a recent analysis by The New York Times found the board is often overruled by the New York Police Department. In 71% of cases, the police department downgraded or rejected the highest level of discipline recommended by the police oversight board.
Some city councilors questioned whether, legally, there could be that level of direction in discipline. But Councilor Lydia Edwards said the board won't direct discipline, just recommend it and receive an explanation if the commissioner chooses otherwise. Without that, she said, the board is toothless.
"If that doesn’t happen ... then what’s the point in the civilian review board?" she asked.
The leader of Boston's largest police union, the Boston Police Patrolmen's Association, earlier bemoaned the lack of union representation on or involvement with the task force. (A sergeant and superintendent both served on the task force.) Officer Larry Calderone called it "disrespectful" that the union didn't have a seat at the table.
Calderone said his biggest issue was who would serve on the panels investigating police. Police want fellow law enforcement officers to oversee them, not civilians.
"It seems punitive to me," he told WBUR's Radio Boston in October. "It looks like there's an axe to grind ... from negative experiences with police officers. Undoubtedly, people have had negative experiences with police officers. However, that doesn't mean we should punish everyone and paint them with the same brush."
The city and police unions are currently negotiating a new contract. Some of the police reform recommendations, like expanding the body camera program, will have to be agreed to in collective bargaining.
It's not clear whether the union would or could take legal action to stop the new oversight office. It has previously sued over other reforms, like the formation of a body camera pilot program in 2016.
The city council Wednesday also approved another task force recommendation: giving hiring preference to Boston high school graduates, including those who earned degrees at charter and parochial schools and through the METCO program. The change will also need to be approved by the state Legislature.