BOSTON - The WBZ I-Team has learned 19 police officers are no longer certified to serve in Massachusetts because of a new effort to boost the public's trust in law enforcement.
"America and apple pie and 'Father Knows Best'. You know, kids wanted to grow up to be cowboys and police officers, not so much anymore," said police reform advocate Jamarhl Crawford. He was talking about the public's distrust in law enforcement, which Crawford says is an issue he's been tackling in Boston for decades.
Finally, now prompted by the public outcry over high-profile police brutality cases across the country, comes hope for a solution in Massachusetts. The Peace Officer Standards and Training, also known as the POST Commission, was tasked by the state legislature a couple years ago to background-check every officer in the state. The commission is doing something Massachusetts has never formally done before, officially certifying all police here.
The agency also has to create an online database where ordinary citizens can look up any officer's record. "I imagine initially, the ability for someone to type up a name and see fundamentally some disciplinary history and certification status," said POST Executive Director Enrique Zuniga.
But critics tell the WBZ I-Team the effort is falling short. According to numbers we obtained from POST, the commission has gone through officers whose last names begin with "A" through "H". Of 8,729 reviewed, 19 have been stripped of their badges. The commission has two more years to work through the rest of the alphabet.
"It confirms my skepticism," said Crawford. He said the number of officers denied certification seems low, considering how many officers he sees in headlines about alleged misconduct. Also, he said, the public database people were first told to expect four months ago, is taking too long.
Zuniga says it's because the commission is weighing all sides of a passionate debate over how much the public should be able to see. "The history is supposed to go all the way to the beginning," he said. There are questions about whether former officers should be listed, whether anonymous complaints should be included, and complaints that turn out to be unsubstantiated.
Retired Sgt. Jim Machado, of the Massachusetts Police Association, said he has concerns around officer privacy. "In a time where the legislature is looking to seal records and expunge records...when it comes to law enforcement, they're looking to open the book and look all the way back," he said.
Zuniga said the commission is working hard to be fair. "Something that we're very cognizant of, is whether we would disclose at all, unsustained or unfounded complaints," he said.
Crawford argues that sometimes, even if complaints are later dropped, they can reveal important patterns. "I believe in full and total access to records," he said. "The good guy's 'white suit' has stains on it, and I think that in order to kind of restore the public faith, the only way to do that, is full accountability and transparency. That's what people have wanted."
Several police organizations have filed a lawsuit against POST, arguing that parts of the certification review process are too invasive. There's been no decision on that yet.
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