Sunday, June 16, 2024

The Somerville Police Department headquarters near Union Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

What will civilian oversight of the Somerville Police Department look like? Will an oversight board investigate resident claims, discipline officers and even expel them from the force?

The Civilian Oversight Task Force called three listening sessions this week to gather community input into the formation  by the end of the year of a body of residents to oversee the Somerville Police Department.

Two meetings were held Monday at noon and 6 p.m., while a third is planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday in person. Denise Molina Capers, the director of the Department of Racial and Social Justice, said the timings allowed for all community members with different perspectives on civilian oversight to attend. 

Participants said complaints against officers should be completely public and discussed whether investigations would be carried out by the new oversight board. While considering the police union and internal affairs, participants also argued if the board should have the authority to discipline and expel officers. Some participants shared stories of their experiences with Somerville police – some that caused fear of retaliation – to discuss their goals for civilian oversight.

Meanwhile, there was a concern about a Cambridge police shooting in which people wanted the name of the officer involved “before the case has been thoroughly investigated. I fear vigilante violence,” a moderator said, reading a comment from an attendee who “would love to see an independent oversight board that can be trusted by the public.” Cambridge has a Police Review & Advisory Board that has been an afterthought in the two biggest police issues of the past several years – the Jan. 4 shooting in Cambridgeport and the wrongful arrest of a black Harvard professor in 2009

Law enforcement participation in a Somerville group, if at all, would need to be from a retired officer who has no conflict of interest with the Somerville Police Department, participants also said. Some brought up that a law enforcement background was vital, as most civilians are not qualified to understand the inner workings and protocols of police.

Wrapping up work by 2024

Myles Herbert, a meeting moderator, said a purpose of the discussion was to factor in community feedback with data-driven findings.

Capers’ department was tasked with creating a civilian oversight board in 2021, when the RSJ was created. She said the task force was given six months starting in June to create a plan with recommendations for the creation of the civilian body responsible for police accountability.

“We are being very intentional to be respectful of the timeline and things that need to get done, so we are very hopeful that we will get this work done in six months,” Capers said.

The 14-person task force is made up of “three open community seats, additional community members, subject matter experts and other key stakeholders,” the website says.

Small number of attendees

The task force members talked through four questions at the listening sessions, asking if participants were supportive, what power or authority the board should have, if law enforcement professionals should be involved and why they supported increased oversight.

Myles Herbert and Peter Paluzzi moderated the meeting Monday night, when around a dozen participants spent about 45 minutes of the allotted time – an hour and 15 minutes – discussing the four questions. Karan Mudgal and Jarelis Fonseca moderated the Monday afternoon session, and other members of the task force include SPD deputy chief Christopher Ward and city councilor Lance Davis. The second session drew just a few people.

Many participants at both sessions said they are supportive, but asked for more details about what the board would and could do. Task force members did not answer, as the board itself is still being developed.

One of a few police efforts

Capers said the task force members have been keeping up with the timeline, which coincides with Somerville’s search for a new police chief. “The listening sessions and how quickly they put that together is evidence of how much priority they’re putting into this, how much work they’re putting into this,” Capers said of the task-force members. “They all have full-time jobs and full-time lives.”

Conversations about civilian oversight of the Somerville Police Department began in the summer of 2020 in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. There are also plans underway to relocate and improve the city’s police station, School Committee members moved to distance officers from student discipline and another group seeks to form an emergency response alternative to police.

The in-person listening session, which is limited to 40 attendees, will be held 6 to 7:15 p.m. Wednesday at The Dojo at Somernova, 15 Properzi Way.