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Boston’s police problem
The death of Victoria Snelgrove puts one more stain on the department’s plummeting reputation

THE BOSTON POLICE are beset by a host of problems that stop short of suggesting the department is out of control, but that certainly raise the question of who — if anyone — is running the show.

Even in the best of times, policing a big city like Boston is a challenge. Fair or unfair, being second-guessed is as maddening as it is routine.

But taken together, the steady drum of negative headlines just can’t be ignored. Embarrassing wrongful convictions have opened a window into the department’s investigatory techniques and training. Tragedies during public celebrations have exposed planning and operational deficiencies. A spike in crime has made clear how far the force has retreated since its community-policing heyday. Exasperated judges and prosecutors have revealed perjury and obstruction of justice by badge-wearers.

These problems do not appear to be new, just newly exposed. And the question remains: is the police force, and its leadership, willing and able to change?

This question gained new urgency when a police officer sent a pepper-spray bullet through 21-year old Emerson College student Victoria Snelgrove’s eye during the city’s celebration of the Boston Red Sox American League Championship victory over the New York Yankees. Commissioner Kathleen O’Toole quickly ordered an investigation, led by former US attorney Donald Stern — leading her right back to where she was when she took office nine months ago. At that time, the department was conducting an investigation of the fatal post–Super Bowl rioting of February 2, when a night of fires, overturned cars, and property damage culminated in a vehicular homicide. The final report of that review blamed poor police planning.

The department has traditionally taken the Abu Ghraib approach to such revelations — everyone claims to be shocked, but nobody blames existing practices or policies. When former police commissioner Paul Evans had the temerity, after two questionable civilian deaths, to suggest that perhaps cops should refrain from shooting at people in cars, the police union — the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association — voted "no confidence" in him and asked for his resignation. When a commission was formed this year by the BPD and Suffolk County DA to seek changes in eyewitness-identification procedures, the BPD refused even to discuss the possibility of taping interrogations. City councilors expressed horror in August at the level of street violence — firearm homicides through August were the highest in 10 years, with a near-tripling of murders in Area B, which includes Roxbury, Mattapan, Mission Hill, and parts of Dorchester. But none of them mentioned that the problem had actually escalated after the BPD declared its anti-violence strategy in May, which included meeting with the Cape Verdean Task Force, collaborating with religious groups, and expanding prisoner re-entry programs.

Commissioner O’Toole has shown a willingness to shine a light on the causes of headline-making problems. Whether she can move beyond that to make necessary changes, however, may depend on whether she and other city leaders can muster the will.

To date, the evidence is not encouraging. Mayor Thomas Menino, for instance, promptly blamed liquor-store owners for the 2004 Super Bowl fracas; after the Snelgrove incident, he suggested that the Fox network was culpable, for inciting revelers with a camera inside the Cask ’n Flagon. Suffolk County DA Dan Conley insists that he has full faith in the BPD’s investigatory powers, even after an external review, made public last week, found that the BPD’s crime-scene-fingerprint examiners were never trained, were not competent to do their work, and would probably be laughed off the witness stand if anybody realized how little they knew.

Conley, of course, is in a bind — if he publicly acknowledges that the BPD’s criminologists and detectives can’t be trusted, he prejudices every future jury against his cases. But at this point, can he really find 12 jurors who trust the BPD? In this past month alone, two big Suffolk County trials in which police credibility was critical ended in hung juries. First a holdout juror prevented the conviction of James Gaines for shooting two police officers in August 2002; then a jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for Aderito Barbosa and John Monteiro, accused of killing Geoffrey Douglas on an MBTA platform in November 2001. Both cases are scheduled for retrial.

Taking in the larger picture, we count no less than eight general areas in which the BPD has faltered recently. So it’s fair to ask how the department plans to address its problems — before the next crisis.

1) Crowd control

On February 2, the Super Bowl celebration was left to run uncontrolled because of a total failure of planning, as later revealed in an internal investigation. Amid the property damage and violence, one person was hit by a car and killed. The incident cost Acting Commissioner James Hussey his chance at promotion, and Kathleen O’Toole was named to the post later in February. With the Democratic National Convention looming, the new commissioner made improving crowd-control tactics a top priority.

As part of that preparation, the BPD armed its crowd-control officers with newly purchased pepper-spray guns, the FN303 model. The BPD drew praise for its behavior during the DNC, but it was never really put to the test: the anticipated protesters, anarchists, and terrorists failed to show. Three months later, the BPD deployed the same personnel and equipment for an entirely predictable celebration of the Red Sox’ pennant win, and ended up firing the FN303 on Lansdowne Street, killing Snelgrove and lodging a pellet in a young man’s sinus cavity. Imagine if the DNC protest cage had been packed with rowdies and the cops reacted that way.

Given the high priority of the crowd-control issue, it is disturbing to learn that O’Toole stayed out of the decision to purchase the weapons, leaving it entirely to her special-operations personnel. Inexplicably, the department regarded the FN303 weapon as, for all practical purposes, non-lethal — despite the fact that its own manufacturer describes it as "less lethal." "My understanding is that this device is marketed as something designed to reduce the risk of penetration," says O’Toole. "Others in the department, never in their wildest dreams imagined that it would have this result."

That misperception would naturally lower the bar on when and how to use it, and upon whom. Furthermore, if the force really allowed itself to be duped by promotional marketing on the FN303, it may well be under similar delusions about the safety of other products or techniques in its arsenal. Although the BPD has not made public the specific weapons models purchased in preparation for the DNC, it has confirmed that it spent $160,000 on stun grenades, projectile launchers, rubber bullets, tear gas, and other weapons.

Personnel matters form another piece of this troubling picture. O’Toole will have to defend her promotion of Robert E. O’Toole (no relation) back to his former rank of deputy superintendent, a title he lost for assaulting a civilian during the 1986 World Series. He is now at the center of the investigation into Snelgrove’s death for distributing the FN303-model guns to untrained patrolmen in his unit on the night she was killed.

Commissioner O’Toole could not comment on the specifics of the incident, given the ongoing investigation. "I am not defending the use of that weapon at this time, but I can say this: nobody at all anticipated this result," she says.

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Issue Date: November 5 - 11, 2004
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