Nearly two years after its executive director was hired, and roughly one year after it began to operate in earnest, Boston’s Office of Police Accountability and Transparency has yet to sustain any civilian complaints against the Boston Police Department or to issue subsequent recommendations for disciplinary action, according to a review of city data by GBH News.

A data dashboard on the office’s website says that in 2022 OPAT, as the office is widely known, received 56 complaints from civilians about the BPD, which employs more than 2,000 officers, and that 21 of those complaints were deemed lacking. But according to a city spokesperson, that doesn’t include more than two dozen complaints that were quickly dismissed upon initial review rather than being sent to OPAT’s Civilian Review Board for deeper consideration. When those are included, the spokesperson said, the tally of complaints received in 2022 rises to 89.

Thirty-five complaints are still pending.

The Boston Police Department, which maintains an alternate mechanism through which civilians can file complaints for review by the BPD, told GBH News it received 126 citizen complaints in 2022 and has sustained two of them.

As a matter of policy, OPAT does not investigate cases that are already being pursued by the BPD.

What OPAT faces

The abundance of dismissals and lack of sustained complaints are striking — especially given the high hopes that accompanied Boston’s police-reform push in 2020, after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer spurred outrage and calls for change nationwide. In interviews, OPAT head Stephanie Everett and experts in civilian oversight suggest why that might be the case.

Everett, who was appointed as OPAT’s executive director in April 2021 by then-acting Mayor Kim Janey, told GBH News that the members of the Civilian Review Board have only been seated for about a year, and have spent some of that time being trained for their new role.

Everett also said more work needs to be done to remind Bostonians that OPAT exists, and pointed out that the office is currently holding a series of community listening sessions aimed at raising its public profile.

“There are still far too many people who don't know that there is a third party that exists for them, in Nubian Square, that they can come into and file a complaint,” Everett said. “They can call, they can email, they can show up to file a complaint and to just have a conversation about an interaction that they had with the Boston police that they have questions about. And we need to do a better job, in my office, of making sure that they know that we exist.”

For some Bostonians, Everett added, simply being informed or reminded of OPAT’s existence may not be enough.

“While we are not a monolith ... a lot of Black and brown people still don’t trust government, and we are a governmental agency,” she said. “I started this job understanding that trust is going to have to be the foundation, but it’s also a very hard ask. They don’t know who I am. They don’t know who this agency is. ... We’re asking a lot of them to come and trust that, if they file a complaint with us, that it will be fair and thoroughly investigated.”

Protest Held In Boston Against Police Brutality In Death Of George Floyd
Demonstrators protest in response to the recent death of George Floyd on May 31, 2020 in Boston, Massachusetts. Protests spread across cities in the U.S., and in other parts of the world in response to the death of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Getty Images North America

OPAT, which was created by a 2020 city ordinance, is a complex entity charged with reviewing existing and proposed BPD policies, sharing Boston policing data with the public, and monitoring the BPD’s ongoing reform efforts.

OPAT also includes and supports the work of the Civilian Review Board, as well as the Internal Affairs Oversight Panel, which subjects the findings of internal BPD investigations to outside review.

Another part of OPAT, the three-member OPAT Commission, acts as a de facto board of directors and has the power to issue subpoenas. However, the city spokesperson said cooperation from the BPD has made that unnecessary so far.

Under the ordinance that created OPAT, the Civilian Review Board is supposed to make disciplinary recommendations if complaints against BPD employees is upheld, though the Boston police commissioner is not obligated to follow them.

In an annual report sent to the mayor in August 2022, Everett said that some civilian allegations of officer misconduct have lacked crucial information, and that some complainants have subsequently cut off contact with OPAT altogether.

"I started this job understanding that trust is going to have to be the foundation, but it's also a very hard ask."
Stephanie Everett, OPAT’s executive director

In that same report, Everett said OPAT’s work had been complicated by a regulatory change made by the Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission — like OPAT, a product of the reform push that followed Floyd's murder.

In June 2022, the POST Commission, as it’s often called, mandated that investigations by police-oversight bodies like OPAT must be completed within 90 days unless an extension is granted.

“Our department has deep concerns about how this accelerated timeline will negatively impact our ability to be thorough throughout the course of our investigations,” Everett said in the August 2022 report, adding that she hoped the POST Commission would rethink that requirement.

National backdrop

Gianina Irlando, the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said a host of factors can lead to entities like OPAT starting their work more slowly than might be expected.

“It’s incredibly difficult to start a new agency, especially one that has authority to investigate other agencies,” Irlando said. “You have staff considerations, you have money considerations, you have authority considerations. And then you’re going to have access situations — because even with proper authority in a piece of legislation, you don’t necessarily have a good sense of what information is available, how to ask for it, and how to make it work in your own system.”

Irlando added that, because a single data point can have multiple explanations, it’s risky to use specific numbers to assess an oversight entity’s performance, either in isolation or comparison to other cities.

For example, a low number of civilian complaints could indicate that community members don’t know or trust a particular oversight agency — or that the police department that agency oversees is doing its job well.

Sharon Fairley, a University of Chicago Law School professor who is tracking and analyzing the proliferation of oversight entities nationally, suggested that anyone sizing up the performance of one of those entities evaluate the quality of investigations it conducts.

“The best way to assess how well an agency is performing is to be able to look at the work, and to be able to assess the quality of the work,” Fairley said. “And what’s good about what’s happening in Boston is, they are publicizing the reports of their investigations so that the public has the opportunity to say, ‘OK. This is the evidence that they brought on. This is how they reached their conclusion.’ And then that audience — the public — can decide whether or not they agree with that, or felt like that was the wrong outcome.”

Cases that have been voted on by the Civilian Review Board can be viewed online at the OPAT web page. They show that Civilian Review Board has consistently voted unanimously on a wide range of cases that seem to run the gamut from frivolous to serious. In one, a complainant claimed they’d been treated rudely after greeting a BPD officer with profanity as part of an independent “audit” of the BPD’s customer service. In another, a bystander contacted OPAT after witnessing an arrest in which they believed officers used excessive force and failed to inform a suspect of his rights.

But Fairley, who led the transition from Chicago’s old review board to the new Civilian Office of Police Accountability, also said that continued scrutiny is appropriate. In Chicago, she said, the former agency seemed to be designed well, but never delivered the level of oversight advocates had hoped for.

“On paper, it looked fantastic,” Fairley said. “It was independent, it had subpoena power, it had jurisdiction over the kind of cases that you want. ... But in execution, it just never developed the way it should have.

“You are right to be watchful,” she added. “Because we want to make sure these entities as they’re created do sort of develop their wings, and [are] able to actually fulfill the mission they’ve been given over time.”