By Gordon T. Davis
The rebellions in Ferguson, MO, regarding the killing of Michael Brown by the police have been the cause of some talk about a civilian review board for the police in Worcester.
A civilian review board is good public policy, as all public agencies need an effective periodic review of their work. Police misconduct is an indication of the effectiveness of Worcester policing and law enforcement. There is today no real review of the Worcester Police Department’s work, whether that work is useful, ineffectual, or bad failure. There are no meaningful statistics collected or kept, and what information is kept is not available to the public. Who can say if there is racial profiling or other type of bad policing happening?
The City Manager in theory reviews the work of the police department, but as we know from the past such reviews by the Manager are just rubber stamping of what the police Chief provides to the Manager. The Manager is supposed to be the “civilian review” of the police. He objectively is not.
We in the public are not able to have an objective opinion of the work or failings of the Worcester Police, as we just don’t have enough information or transparency.
I went to a Worcester Human Rights Commission meeting recently, and the good people there were reviewing a quarterly report of complaints brought against the Worcester Police. The report was cryptic, part of it being in code. The code was for the type of complaint. The Commissioners had a hard time with the report. Even if they could have figured it out, the Worcester Human Rights Commission could not release their findings without the permission of the Manager.
To be effective, a review of the police should be independent and free of conflicts of interests. The City Manager is certainly conflicted about anything negative about his administration.
Before going further I need to make full disclosures: I have been arrested four times, I have worked on the Justice for Cristino Hernandez Committee, I have relatives who are police officers, and I know that many cops are good people. I have an open mind on the issues.
In Worcester, public review of the police will take a form that might be different from anything else. Certainly it would be different than the Civilian Review Board found in Cambridge, MA. Worcester once had that type of review board which was a part of the Worcester Human Rights Commission. It had the power to investigate complaints against the City of Worcester. In the 1980s the Police Department rammed through a charter change that prevented the Worcester Human Rights Commission from investigating any complaints against the City. The commission cannot issue ANY report of any type without the approval of the City Manager.
The review of the police in Worcester will likely take the form of a nongovernmental agency that takes complaints against the police, helps complainants with their cases, and issues reports. To some extent these needs were performed by the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, when Ron Madnick was executive director. It still does work in this area, recently winning a case against the City in Federal Court. Chris Robarge and the attorney Beverly Chorbajian were significant protagonists for the plaintiffs, but that is a story for another day.
Hopefully, the talk of a public review of the police precipitated by the rebellions in Ferguson will result in the good public policy of civilian review of the police in Worcester, a rational outcome of the repeating story of Ferguson, MO.