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BINJ INVESTIGATIVE FEATURES

The state’s police oversight commission only publicizes cops who have been punished, but there’s a back door to discovering the dirty details of departments that let problematic officers linger

“The public deserves to see allegations of police misconduct in real time, because officers have tremendous powers and responsibilities in our communities.”


Since 2021, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission has publicly posted information about Massachusetts police officers who are suspended after being charged or convicted of a felony, or decertified because of disciplinary matters. The POST Commission regularly updates the list with new information on punishments, and although it does not list the specific reason for suspensions, it still amounts to more transparency than there was in the past.

At the same time, the POST list only covers the final suspensions and decertifications for officers. While they plan to make “most” disciplinary records available, that has not yet happened. 

Other state documents, meanwhile, show how some officers spend years being disciplined for violations like falsifying information and being too drunk to show up for work while remaining on the force, and how candidates charged with “aggravated” DUI and who faced allegations of sexual assault were still offered jobs by one department.

These relatively detailed documents are part of public decisions from the state Civil Service Commission, and provide a rare window into police disciplinary measures—or the lack thereof. They show that even as official suspensions are more visible, officers with disciplinary records can get second, third, fourth, and continuing chances to keep their jobs, while officers with questionable histories are offered jobs in the first place.

That kind of information about cops needs to be more public as well, transparency advocates say. The issue is especially relevant considering the scandal around former police union leader Patrick Rose, a convicted sex offender whose abuse of children was widely known among colleagues, and whose victims are now suing the Boston Police Department for looking the other way. Sunshine, on the other hand, gives people the ability to research and potentially hold accountable abusive officers, according to Svante Myrick, president of People For the American Way.

“We’ve given police quite a lot of authority to change lives, even take lives,” said Myrick, whose group’s mission is to “mobilize community and cultural leaders to advance Truth [and] Justice.”

 “In turn, it only makes sense that we are able to see how well qualified they are for the authority we’ve given them. They can carry weapons, they can kill people on the street, the public needs to know how qualified they are.”

The review process

The POST Commission was created two years ago and developed a certification process for the more than 22,000 police across the state. While certification may be suspended for officers on leave, it is also suspended for police charged with felonies and revoked on conviction.

The body investigates police misconduct, and publicly lists officers who have been decertified or suspended, making it easier for other departments to see that information if suspended officers apply for jobs elsewhere. And it is collecting disciplinary records of all officers, according to its annual report released in March of this year, plus “working to make most of the information available to the public in the coming months.” The POST Commission did not respond to a request for comment on disciplinary records.

Gregory V. Sullivan, the president of the New England First Amendment Coalition and an attorney based in New Hampshire, said that state’s supreme court overturned a law keeping police disciplinary actions private in 2020. As a result, watchdogs have much greater access.

“We’ve made tremendous advances regarding accountability,” Sullivan said. “The Supreme Court told the Superior Court to balance privacy rights asserted by the individual against the public’s right to know, and ruled that officers’ privacy rights with respect to on and even off duty conduct are minimal.” He added that people still need to request disciplinary records: “Cities and towns aren’t restricted in providing information, but generally do not volunteer that information.”

Municipalities in Massachusetts also do not generally volunteer that information—but it sometimes can be found in Civil Service Commission records.

Police officers, along with firefighters, prison guards, and some other employees, are hired through the civil service process. While local departments hire officers and make the final call on promotions, the state administers exams that determine if or how well a person is qualified for the position.

And when a candidate or person up for promotion thinks they were wrongly passed over, they appeal to the CSC, which also hears appeals from employees contesting disciplinary measures and firings.

In many cases, the process leading to the appeal in the first place can take months. And the CSC will also often take months after a hearing to issue a ruling. But its rulings are publicly posted online and very detailed, explaining both sides’ position on the matter and referring extensively to evidence given during the hearing before going into detail of legal precedents and reasoning to explain their rulings.

That level of detail often includes personnel and disciplinary information about the employee and other people involved in the appeal. And as several recent rulings show, officers can see significant discipline within the department while still keeping their jobs, or be given job offers despite records of dangerous behavior.

Myrick said that while disciplinary records for most jobs shouldn’t be public, that changes when the job involves government authority: “Privacy for most private citizens is near total. If you get disciplined at your job at the factory, the neighbors don’t need to know that or deserve that. But in government, because you’re working for the public and getting paid tax dollars and serving their interests, you trade away some right to privacy.” The good-government advocate added, “How much you trade away depends on how much authority the public is giving you.”

The CSC usually publishes the names of appealing officers in their rulings, but did not do so in every case here. Though the original reports are public record, for consistency and to focus on the system that enables noncompliant cops and allows malignant behavior to occur with impunity, we have not published names of individuals in these summaries.

Cocaine and custody

A Quincy man’s appeal to join that city’s police department revealed that department offered positions to people charged with serious offenses, according to a CSC ruling issued last month.

The man initially applied in 2020 but was bypassed for several reasons, including multiple driving violations and a 2014 OUI. Quincy officials appointed 21 new officers that year, including four who ranked below the man on certification scores—including a candidate who was the son of the city’s mayor and nephew of the police chief.

The applicant appealed the bypass to the CSC, which ordered Quincy to put him at the top of the list for the next hiring process. In 2020, the man was listed twenty-third when Quincy appointed 31 new officers, but was bypassed again, with officials once again citing his driving history and OUI along with new concerns that the man might have an old grudge with a current QPD officer.

Examining the appeal of this second bypass, the CSC noted the backgrounds of 14 other cops who did receive offers of employment from the department during that hiring period, including one who was involved in a police chase in New Hampshire in 2013. He’d been driving 101 mph in a 40 mph zone, and subsequently failed a sobriety test and was arrested for “aggravated” DUI. According to CSC documents, those “charges [were] reduced to a misdemeanor DUI after [the] candidate attended an ‘Impaired Driver Care Management Program.’”

Another candidate, during the “2017 hiring cycle … repeatedly denied using illegal drugs … after testing positive for cocaine”; “During the 2022 hiring cycle, however, he admitted that he did, in fact, use cocaine in 2017.” Not to be outdone by another hire who, while working as a “police officer in another community,” was “Placed in protective custody in 2019 after ‘drinking heavily’ at a party.” “No charges [were] filed” in that instance, but after “Allegations of two sexual assaults that allegedly occurred in or about 2014” were “filed in 2019 by family with ‘clear concerns’ for [the] candidate becoming a police officer,” “the case did not move forward due to passage of time and lack of victim cooperation.”

“Quincy offered no credible explanation why the OUI or the driving record has now become a reason for bypassing him, especially when Quincy has appointed other candidates with equally, or more troubling, recent criminal and driving records,” CSC officials wrote in the report, agreeing with the appeal.

Quincy police did not respond to questions about the hiring process outlined in the CSC report, including whether the 14 officers offered employment had taken jobs with the department. Cameron McEllhiney, the executive director for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said police need to maintain equal standards for both the public and their own benefit.

“When there is a discrepancy in discipline, two people doing the same thing and one getting discipline and the other not, that is a problem not only for the community but also law enforcement officers,” McEllhiney said. “That should not be something that anyone falls victim to.”

‘A serious alcohol problem’

In 2021, the Randolph Police Department fired an officer after repeated alcohol-related problems on and off the job, and the officer appealed the decision to the CSC. The history laid out in the ruling shows RPD officials tried to help their colleague with his drinking, but also describes several years of his drinking interfering with his job before being fired.

Randolph police did not respond to questions about the officer’s history with the department and superior officers’ response to his actions. But according to the ruling, the cop in question joined the RPD in 2016 and repeatedly came in late or did not show up over the following year, with officers ultimately checking in on him after a no-show in April 2018 and finding numerous empty bottles of alcohol in his presence. They took him to the hospital and a union shop steward spoke with him about getting help for alcohol abuse, but the officer went home later that evening.

RPD brass considered this a “major incident” and put the cop on administrative leave for two days, with the chief and others encouraging him to get help. But “the Chief did not take any further action against the Appellant in the hope that he would respond to their advice,” according to the CSC report. In August, police checked on the officer after another no-show, and again had to taxi him to the hospital after believing him to be intoxicated.

Police seized the officer in question’s guns from his home and revoked his license to carry, and placed him on administrative leave again with orders to undergo a fitness-for-duty evaluation. A doctor wrote, “this is a straightforward case of a man with a serious alcohol problem . . . who has apparently not yet acknowledged to himself or anyone else he has an alcohol problem,” concluding that, “from a practical administrative point of view, you should hold this man accountable to the usual policies and procedures of your RPD.”

According to the CSC report though, the doctor said he could not determine whether or not the cop was actually unfit for duty. In turn, the chief suspended him for three days and then restored his license to carry. But in February 2019, the officer was ordered to undergo a second fitness-for-duty evaluation after his delayed response to help an elderly man who had been beaten and robbed.

The chief suspended the officer for five days without pay and assigned him to desk duty for a year after the delayed response. Another short suspension followed, then in early 2020, the officer didn’t show up to work multiple times because he was intoxicated, according to the CSC ruling. The chief went to his house after one of these no-shows and found him drunk, but “did not discipline the Appellant for the two no call/no shows at that time, as he was hoping the Appellant would proactively seek treatment.” Still, he was allowed to return to work for his next scheduled shift.

In July 2020, the RPD officer was placed on administrative leave and his firearm was seized after he failed to show up for work because he was intoxicated, but his license to carry was not suspended. At the end of the month, the chief recommended that the town manager fire the officer.  One week later, the cop reportedly broke down the door of his girlfriend’s apartment. When police went to his home later that day, they found him intoxicated. Finally, the chief suspended his license to carry.

Randolph held a dismissal hearing for the officer in May 2021 and discharged him in June. In the ruling, Civil Service Commissioner Paul M. Stein describes his no-shows as “graciously unpunished.” He commends the chief and other RPD members for attempting to help, but in a footnote Stein expresses concern that the cop stayed on the force for so long.

“I find it troubling that, without a definitive conclusion from [the evaluating doctors], that the Appellant had an alcohol dependency which prevented him from performing the essential duties of a police officer, [the chief] was constrained to keep an officer on the force whom he, and many others on his command staff, based on their training and experience, had good reason to believe was unable to meet the standards expected of an RPD police officer,” the commissioner wrote. “Although these decisions may be influenced by factors beyond the purview of the Commission, such as collective bargaining obligations, an argument fairly can be made that, as far as civil service law is concerned, the conclusion that an employee must be discharged for ‘habitually using intoxicating liquors to excess’ does not require an expert medical opinion.”

‘A higher standard of transparency’

McEllhiney, the executive director for the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, said any efforts by a department to help an officer need to be balanced against the safety of the public.

“Oversight boards and law enforcement have this opportunity for two entities to partner and come up with better policies to deal with issues departments face,” he said. “To learn of [an officer’s alcohol abuse] after the fact is disturbing. It’s amazing to look at the level of compassion, but we need to work to put policies to balance compassion with public safety in a way that is fair and equitable.”

Ultimately, advocates said, the need to ensure the public’s safety from police themselves demands more transparency, with disciplinary records and histories readily available as opposed to potentially available through requests.

“I think a more transparent setup where anyone can look it up and not submit a request is better,” Myrick said. “Why? Because [police] carry guns. … They have prosecutorial privilege … that kind of power to exercise their discretion is the reason to have a higher standard of transparency.”

“The public deserves to see allegations of police misconduct in real time, because officers have tremendous powers and responsibilities in our communities,” said CJ Griffin, director of the Justice Gary S. Stein Public Interest Center. “Their misconduct shouldn’t be kept a secret and something we learn about only if they decide to appeal their punishment. Transparency builds trust and also helps the public hold departments accountable.”

It’s important to make that information readily available so the public can be informed, said Sullivan of the New England First Amendment Coalition. He recalled a recent case where a police officer ran for city council after being fired following an audit by a private firm paid for by taxpayer money. Watchdogs had to file a lawsuit to get the misconduct files unearthed by the audit, and they were successful—but only after the election, which the former officer won by three votes.

Making disciplinary investigations public could “totally” prevent future crimes, Myrick said. Two of Patrick Rose’s victims recently sued a former BPD commissioner and the patrolmen’s union, among other officials, for failing to stop Rose back in the ’90s, and Myrick said transparency would counter any lack of response.

“With abusive officers there are very often warning signs,” Myrick added. “If we have a culture of accountability, those would be reported. Predators thrive under expectation of silence. When they realize no one turns anyone in for anything, that means they can get away with the worst behavior.”


This article is syndicated by the MassWire news service of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org

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