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News and Features: Features

Police misconduct

The Boston Police Department may be paying the price for letting a program to help troubled cops lapse

BY: Edward Mason and Tom Mashberg
Issue: Winter


 
Outside the Area C police station in the Fields Corner section of
Dorchester. Photo by J. Cappuccio.
ON APRIL 22, 2009, CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT and his girlfriend were driving in Boston when they got into a fender-bender. The couple called police after the other driver refused to exchange insurance information and Officer Gerald L. Cofield Jr. was sent to the scene.

According to Knight, Cofield was “verbally abusive and outwardly angry” from the outset and slammed the driver’s door on Knight’s leg. When Knight objected, Cofield allegedly yelled, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” Knight says Cofield then dragged him by his neck from the car, slammed him against the hood hard enough to leave a mark, and handcuffed and arrested him. The scene was captured on a cell phone camera by Knight’s girlfriend.

Cofield charged Knight with assault on a police officer, while Knight sued the Boston Police Depart­ment and Cofield in federal court. The assault charge against Knight was later reduced to disorderly conduct and subsequently tossed out. But Knight’s civil rights lawsuit against the BPD and Cofield, a 30-year veteran of the force, was not dismissed. Boston ended up settling the case in October 2011, paying $35,000 for what should have been a routine traffic call.

It should never have come to this. Between 2005 and 2009, according to department data, Cofield, now 54, accumulated seven other misconduct complaints for violating department rules, the fifth most of any Boston officer over that period. In many police departments around the country, just a couple of complaints would have sent Cofield into an intervention program providing counseling, closer supervision, academy retraining, a psychological fitness review, and possibly a new assignment.

But Boston, which launched its own Early Intervention System (EIS) in 1992, allowed the program to founder starting around 2000 and let it grind to a halt in 2005. For years, Cofield and other misconduct-prone officers ended up off the radar and on their own. Put simply, Boston’s police brass abandoned a crucial tool used by departments nationally to oversee the men and women who patrol city streets with guns and badges.

The loss of the intervention system may have contributed to a decade-long spike in complaints against officers and a costly increase in verdicts and settlements in misconduct cases, according to a review of 10 years of Boston Police data and city legal records obtained through public information requests. Since 2000, Boston has spent more than $20 million on police settlements and court-imposed fines. Another 43 cases are pending or under judicial review, including a $14 million jury award to Shawn Drumgold of Roxbury in 2009 after a detective violated his civil rights.

Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska professor who wrote a history of early intervention systems for the Department of Justice, says Boston needs to start over. “This police department needs an independent, outside review of its early intervention system,” he says. “They need to formalize it and put it in writing. Any organization should be able to monitor the performance of its employees. And this is especially true in policing.”

 
Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis is trying to revive the
Early Intervention System. Photo by Kathleen Dooher.
Commissioner Edward Davis rejects the notion that the department has problems with its EIS. Nonetheless, he and his personnel chiefs say they are developing a comprehensive system to keep tabs on officers. As part of that effort, they are spending $19 million to upgrade a 15-year-old computer system so that multiple databases can be tapped to track officer behavior. The newly designed system, expected in the fall, will alert BPD brass to more than just misconduct complaints filed by civilians or the department’s Internal Affairs Division. It will be linked into department databases that track officers’ personnel records and reports filed when force is used to subdue a prisoner.

Currently, says Daniel P. Linskey, the Boston Police Department’s superintendent-in-chief, managers must hunt through multiple databases to piece together a full profile of an at-risk or misbehavior-prone officer. “Our goal is to capture this in one-stop shopping so I can get a report on my desk so I can see who is showing up in more than one category,” Linskey says.

But it’s not clear the new information Linskey wants will be a part of EIS. The department has no written material outlining the future of the program or what kinds of behavioral problems will count toward an EIS referral. Davis says he intends to rely primarily on formal complaints when assessing officers, something critics say is too limited.

In the meantime, the department makes do the best it can. Asked about problem cops like Cofield, Linskey is candid: “Do we have people falling through the cracks? Absolutely.”

THE ST. CLAIR COMMISSION

Boston’s Early Intervention System was launched in 1992 at the urging of the St. Clair Commission, a reform panel created after the botched Carol DiMaiti Stuart murder probe. In October 1989, Stuart’s husband, Charles, told police a black man shot him and killed his pregnant wife as they left a childbirth class. A massive manhunt in predominantly black neighborhoods led to the wrongful arrest of Willie Bennett for a crime Charles Stuart committed. When Stuart’s lies unraveled, he jumped to his death from the Tobin Bridge. The case tarnished the reputation of the nation’s oldest police force, leading to a top-to-bottom review of the department.

The St. Clair Commission’s work coincided with revelations that the department’s Internal Affairs Division inflated data to show that 22 percent of civilian complaints against officers were upheld, when in fact just 12 percent were sustained, the same level that are being sustained today.

The St. Clair Commission said the process for examining civilian complaints was undermined by “shoddy, half-hearted investigations, lengthy delays, and inadequate documentation and record-keeping.” It rebuked the department for years of weak oversight and poor discipline of problem cops. And it described the department’s technology for tracking the performance of officers and complaints against them as “inadequate and inferior to most other urban police departments.”

The commission called for introducing an early warning system to professionalize oversight, formalize discipline, and help restore public confidence in the department. The Early Intervention System that was created applies to all officers, but it also helps the department focus on a stubborn cadre of problem-causers inside the 2,124-member force. The Early Intervention System was created for all officers, but it also helps focus on a stubborn cadre of problem-causers in the force.In the case of an officer like Cofield, his pattern of generating civilian and internal misconduct complaints due to physical outbursts should have landed him in EIS automatically. But some cops with few formal complaints often show other signs of trouble, such as alcohol issues, sick-time abuse, problems with colleagues, cruiser crashes, and excessive traffic stops. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has a model list of 18 factors that it says should trigger warning flags for supervisors.

“The best practice is to take a look at a whole variety of factors,” says Merrick Bobb, president of the Police Assess­ment Resource Center in Los Angeles. Police should be “looking at things like litigation, citizen complaints, administrative investigations, officer-involved shootings, use-of-force complaints, suppression motions in court, and prosecution declinations based on lack of confidence in the officer’s testimony,” Bobb says.

The Justice Department and law enforcement experts credit early intervention programs with helping stressed officers, reducing civilian complaints, cutting down on lawsuits, and heightening professionalism. Jack McDevitt, a criminologist at Northeastern University and an aide to the St. Clair Commission, says early intervention is intended to prevent problems, not punish cops.

“EIS systems are state of the art to good policing in America. A majority of police departments have a functioning one and should have one,” he says “Any time an officer in any agency is dealing with a difficult time in life, it’s good to get help, and we’re not good at asking for help.”

Walker, the University of Nebraska professor, says a strong early intervention system means “fewer complaints and presumably fewer serious incidents that result in lawsuits.”

Given the Boston Police Depart­ment’s early embrace of its EIS program, it  seems hard to believe it was allowed to lapse. But it appears to have fallen through the cracks during a series of transitions between Davis’s predecessors, Paul Evans, Kathleen O’Toole, and Albert Goslin.

Department records indicate Boston’s Early Inter­ven­tion System at the outset significantly reduced the number of complaint-prone officers. From 1992 to 1997, when EIS was fully functioning under commissioners Francis “Mickey” Roache, William Bratton, and Evans, the number of officers referred to the program annually for generating repeat complaints fell from 78 to 6, according to a review of Boston Police Department annual reports. After 1997, statistics are omitted from the reports and information is more sketchy. Between 1998 and 2005, for example, there are five years when all references to having an EIS program disappear.

Beginning in 2000, the Internal Affairs Division, which oversees the Early Intervention System, appears to have twice switched the software it used to track complaints. Justice Department records show that in 2003 Evans sought and received a $450,000 federal grant that included funds to upgrade the computerized tracking of officers. It is unclear what improvements were made after Evans left in 2003 for a position in the British Home Office. In 2005, the year the program shut down, an obscure reference in a city budget document says 48 officers were identified by EIS as needing intervention. Davis be­came commissioner in December 2006, but says EIS stopped working in 2005.

With funding from the George Polk Foundation, we sought to examine the years when EIS was moribund. Using computer spreadsheets, we reviewed more than 1,000 complaints filed against officers between January 1, 2005, and April 30, 2009. After applying the department’s own criteria—two complaints against an officer in a one-year period or three complaints in a two-year period—the review found that 163 officers could have been flagged for referral to EIS over the four-year period.

A review of police data shows 23 officers with as many as 13 misconduct complaints and as few as five between January 2005 and April 2009, when the EIS was down. In the two years after EIS restarted, 15 of those officers generated fresh complaints.
One officer, Tyrone E. Smith, racked up six complaints from 2005 to 2009 and another five after that. An amateur heavyweight boxer, Smith has faced use-of-force allegations twice. The first was “not sustained” by Internal Affairs, and an August 2011 incident was ruled “unfounded.” In 2008, the city paid $7,000 to a Boston man who sued in federal court claiming Smith lost his temper and roughed him up at a traffic stop when he did not produce his identification fast enough. Smith remains on the beat in District B-3 in Mattapan. Efforts to reach him directly and through the police union were unsuccessful. A review shows 15 of 23 officers who faced five or more misconduct charges from 2005 to 2009 generated new complaints the next two years.The city may also soon owe more than $100,000 to another alleged victim of Officer Cofield. In December 2004, Lionel Rogers, a separated father of four, was late delivering his children to his court-appointed drop-off location—a Roxbury police station. When Rogers arrived 90 minutes late, Cofield, according to court records, was behind the front desk. The men got into an argument over Rogers’s tardiness.

According to Rogers, Cofield went into the lobby, threw Rogers against a wall, bent him over, kneed him in the stomach, and tossed him to the floor as his children watched. Rogers was arrested but the charges were dropped. In March 2005, Rogers filed a civilian complaint against Cofield alleging unnecessary force. Internal Affairs ruled the complaint “unfounded.” Rogers sued the city and Cofield and in December 2011 a federal jury awarded Rogers $101,000. A judge is weighing the award.

Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, says Boston’s EIS needs to be both more expansive and open to public scrutiny. “The culture of a police department is significantly affected by whether you have a functioning early-warning system that is taken seriously,” she says. “It is a tool that sends a message that they really care about identifying problem officers before they hurt or kill someone.”

Wunsch also said neglecting EIS as a tool for preventing misconduct gives lawyers an issue to raise when they sue over rogue police behavior. “The lack of an effective system to track officers in trouble early on can be evidence to show the city is deliberately indifferent to the violations of individuals’ constitutional rights, and that may cause liability for the city,” she says.

TRYING AGAIN

Ed Davis was a big advocate of early intervention systems when he was the police chief in Lowell, but it has taken him awhile to get the program back up and running in Boston. In December 2006, when Davis took the job of commissioner in Boston, he says he believed the department’s early intervention system was operating smoothly. Consumed with other priorities, he did not learn until 2008 that it was effectively shut down, at which point he says he ordered a review and re-launch.

 

"The culture of a police department is significantly affected by whether
you have a functioning early-warning system that is taken seriously," says
Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of
Massachusetts. Photo by Kathleen Dooher.

 “Back in the ’80s and before we started thinking about intervention, officers were dealt with through the internal affairs process,” Davis says. “Management didn’t see [early intervention] as a priority. We’re recognizing now it’s a really important process and we need to pay close attention to it.”

Before restarting Boston’s EIS, Davis had a deputy superintendent, Kenneth Fong, examine best practices at other departments. For example, the Charlotte Police Depart­­ment reviews more than misconduct complaints in referring officers for early intervention. Charlotte’s practice is to flag how often police charge a civilian with disorderly conduct for assaulting an officer as well as un­necessary force complaints, incidents with police vehicles, and sick leave abuse. Charlotte also publishes a 25-page early intervention system handbook online for all to see.

When Davis restarted Boston’s Early Intervention System, he chose not to adopt the approach taken by Charlotte. Despite the computer overhaul, it is uncertain whether EIS will be changed to model other police departments in terms of the wide range of factors considered for referrals.

Walker, the University of Nebraska expert, said Boston should issue an annual report on the number and percentage of officers who need intervention and what help they received. As commissioner, Davis has not released this information and he refuses to discuss any officer in EIS due to privacy issues. He says disclosing aggregate referral data is an idea he might support.

“I don’t have any objection to putting the numbers out there,” Davis said. “We’re trying to be as transparent as possible.”

Many cities embrace creativity and transparency in their intervention programs for police. In San Antonio, Sgt. Lori Goss, coordinator for the Officer Concern Program— that city’s version of an early intervention system—says her department offers off-site financial counseling to officers who take on too many paid details to make ends meet. The San Antonio police lists its indicators publicly, among them tardiness, suspicion of substance abuse, and lawsuits.

Davis acknowledges that when he moved to reboot EIS, the department chose to review only misconduct complaints against officers from January 2005 through April 2009. As a result, Davis referred 94 officers retroactively into the revived EIS, well below the 163 we counted as eligible under the program’s numerical guidelines. Davis says he and his superintendents made judgments based on discretion and their intense familiarity with members of a “close-knit department.”

“There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into the supervision of a police department outside of what EIS does,” Davis says. In fact, he says, he wants to raise the minimum threshold for triggering referrals to EIS from two to three formal complaints in one year. That and other EIS-related issues are being negotiated with Boston’s police unions.

Linskey says retaliatory or unsubstantiated complaints might unfairly put an officer over the limit. He said some cops patrol beats more prone to generating civilian complaints. An officer whose shift routinely puts him among “thousands of people coming out of nightclubs and getting into drunken brawls,” he says, would likely use pepper spray “a lot more than an officer on a quiet beat in West Roxbury.”

Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights lawyer, has secured some of the largest jury verdicts and settlements against the city in the past decade. Last year he won a $1.4 million settlement for Michael P. O’Brien, a former Middle­sex County corrections officer who claimed Boston Police Officer David C. Williams brutally beat him during a traffic stop in March 2009. Williams, who had a history of violent episodes, was fired. He is appealing.

Friedman questions why Davis did not resurrect Boston’s EIS sooner. “In Lowell, he was a very active advocate of early intervention systems,” Friedman says. “Here, it was not one of his priorities. It’s something he should have had in place for a long time.”

ONE COP'S SPIRAL

One highly decorated but misconduct-plagued officer, Brian E. Guilfoyle, says the Early Intervention System was not there for him when his high-pressure job got thebetter of him.

Guilfoyle, 45, retired in 2009 after attempting suicide with prescription pills. Now a construction worker, he says the program would have made a difference in his troubled life and allowed him to continue the job he loved.

“If they offered that to me, I’d probably still be a cop right now, instead of having lost my house and being divorced and struggling to make payments every month,” Guilfoyle says. “I was a great officer, and fellow officers call me a great cop.”

Guilfoyle relished patrolling high-crime beats in Rox­bury and South Boston. The state twice recognized him with the prestigious George L. Hanna Memorial Award for Bravery, named for a state trooper gunned down during a 1983 traffic stop. He also received a Schroeder Brothers Memorial Award for Valor, the department’s highest award—one not given out every year.  The award is named for brothers Detective John D. Schroeder and Officer Walter Schroeder, both of whom were killed while responding to robberies.

By his account, Guilfoyle says he narrowly escaped gunshots and injured his knee chasing down criminals. He says he endured needle pricks and worried about what he might contract.

But one day in 2006, Guilfoyle was among officers scouring a Mattapan property where the tenant allegedly dismembered his father. Guilfoyle discovered a severed head in bag. He says it was a turning point in his career. He says he became overly aggressive and “lippy” with civilians—he thinks he had post-traumatic stress disorder.

Between 2005 and 2009, Guilfoyle received nine misconduct complaints, the third most among officers during the time Boston’s EIS was offline. The complaints included allegations of unnecessary force and disrespectful treatment.

“I was out of place and felt like I was a stranger in my own department and all that stuff,” Guilfoyle says. “Some­one would say something, and I reacted negatively.”

Yet he never heard of the program aimed at helping cops readjust. “I can guarantee you, that was never mentioned to me during my career,” Guilfoyle says. “That, I can honestly say.”

Davis says it does not surprise him Guilfoyle had not heard of EIS because his downward spiral occurred while the program was in trouble. Davis says when he re-launched it he notified the unions, announced it to division heads, and discussed it at meetings where crime statistics are hashed over.

“We let everybody know we were doing it again,” Davis says.  

Edward Mason and Tom Mashberg are veteran reporters who have covered Boston for years. Sydney Lupkin contributed research and data analysis to this report, which was funded by a grant from the George Polk Investigative Reporting Program at Long Island University.

 

 

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