Boston police aim to lower backlog of routine complaints

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The Boston Police Department has launched a mediation program aimed at reducing a backlog of routine complaints against officers — an idea first suggested a decade ago.

Even though the number of complaints dropped in 2014, the time it takes to resolve the cases has frustrated both citizens and the officers who live in the shadow of possible action pending against them.

Police officials hope that the program, which will be managed by the Harvard Mediation Program at Harvard Law School, will help clear less serious complaints quickly. That will free up time for the department to focus on investigating high-priority complaints, such as those involving misconduct or excessive force.

Officials also hope the program will strengthen the relationship between the police department and the community.

“If you bring the police and the complainant together, maybe each can understand where the other was coming from,” Police Commissioner William B. Evans said. “I think it’s a win-win for both the public and the police department.”

Once a complaint is found to be eligible for mediation, the officer and the complainant are contacted to see whether they are interested in resolving the matter that way, said Police Superintendent Frank Mancini, commander of the Bureau of Professional Standards.

If they agree to go ahead, the confidential mediations will be on neutral ground — at the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in Jamaica Plain.

Officers are prohibited from attending mediation sessions in uniform or wearing any insignia or department-issued equipment.

“The goal is to ensure that citizens feel comfortable,” said Rachel A. Viscomi, the Harvard program’s assistant director. “The idea is to level the playing field.”

The parties can agree to a mutually acceptable resolution, and the case would be closed. But if they do not agree, the case will be investigated by Internal Affairs.

No mediations have happened yet, but Evans said he is reviewing six cases that could qualify for possible inclusion.

The most serious complaints will continue to be investigated by the Internal Affairs Division. Grievances involving criminal allegations will be reviewed by the city’s Anti-Corruption Unit.

Complaints that involve a pending lawsuit, potential civil rights violations, or those that allege gender or racial discrimination also do not qualify for mediation.

Of the 386 complaints civilians filed against police officers in 2014, 55 percent alleged disrespectful treatment, unbecoming conduct, or unreasonable judgment, according to police department data.

“In time, [the mediation program] will reduce the number of cases that need to be investigated,” Mancini said . “Internal Affairs cases are very laborious. [The program] will free up a lot of time for investigators.”

But will it suffice? “To the extent this helps to gain trust between officers and citizens, that’s a good thing,” said J. Larry Mayes, one of three members of the Civilian Oversight Ombudsman Panel, which reviews Internal Affairs investigations. “I think it’s a very great start, but I think a lot more needs to be done.”

Armani White, organizer with Youth Against Mass Incarceration, said the program is not enough.

“It’s more of a window dressing to avoid creating real community oversight with teeth, which has been proposed,” White said. “There’s no prevention, nothing addressing racism in the Boston Police Department or people who feel like they’re being profiled.”

Other police departments have long used mediation programs to address citizen complaints including New York, Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Portland, Ore., Viscomi said.

Viscomi said she expects that in Boston, as in other cities, the first year or two will be slow as both officers and civilians warm up to the idea.

“There are reasons that both officers and citizens may be hesitant to engage because it’s unlike the way they are accustomed to engaging,” Viscomi said. “For citizens, it causes them to take time out of their day and they may be hesitant. [For officers], when they’re engaging in the course of their work, there’s a very clear sense of hierarchy.”

“When sitting together at mediation . . . everyone is engaging as equals and for some people that can feel like a risk,” she said.

The mediation program was first recommended in a report by Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice in 2005. Two years later, the executive order that established the Civilian Oversight Ombudsman Panel, also called for a mediation program.

But efforts to create the program stalled for more than a decade because of disagreements with the police department’s unions, and concerns over costs and logistics.

Detective Brian Black, president of the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, called the program “a good idea.” Leaders for two other police unions did not return calls seeking comment.

Jack McDevitt, director of Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice, said the program will allow residents and police to better understand one another.

“If there is a rationale for why [the officer] was short with the person they stopped, the police officer can explain that,” McDevitt said. “We’re all human beings.”

Jan Ransom can be reached at jan.ransom@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.

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