Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Thin Blue Line in Black and White

The immediate chain of events that led to the beating of Michael Cox by fellow officers on the Boston Police Department took place at three locations: a bar in Dorchester’s Four Corners, a hamburger joint in Grove Hall, and a dead-end street in Mattapan. The settings might just as well have been the Wild West, where the hold of law and order is stretched thin, and the distinction between true and false, or good and evil, can be scrambled in a burst of violence and the frenzy of a chase. But the chain of events reaching farther back and farther beyond raises the chaos and calculation of one night to an indictment of a city’s leadership.

Since the incident took place in January, 1995, the case around the beating and the overturned conviction of fellow officer Kenneth Conley have been widely reported in Boston media. In his new book about the case, The Fence, Dick Lehr, a journalism professor at Boston University and former investigative reporter with The Boston Globe, shows the connections with a series of costly blunders by the Boston Police, including missed signals of trouble ahead.

As Lehr announces in the full title of the book, the story is about “a police cover-up along Boston’s racial divide.” On one side is Michael Cox, an African-American who grew up in Roxbury, working at the time as a plainclothes officer in the gang unit. Though at least one officer present at the beating was also an African-American, Lehr’s narrative traces a definite fault line, mainly between Boston’s black community and public authorities—all the way from responders on the street to police command, the mayor’s administration, and prosecutors.

The beating took place after a lengthy police chase through Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan. At the end, police arrested four suspects, but it was Cox who was by far the most battered—suggesting the force used on him was excessive even for subduing a criminal.

The chase began with what proved to be a fatal shooting around 2 a.m. in Grove Hall, at Walaikum’s Burger. The victim was also targeted by mistake, incorrectly linked to a long-running feud with a gang member spotted earlier at the bar in Four Corners, Cortee’s Lounge.

The next mistake would be a phone call from the scene of the shooting falsely reporting the victim was a police officer. It's another crossing of lines, with even more to follow. In a world where cops try to blend in with gangsters, and where suspects scrupulously signal turns while trying to zig-zag away from patrol cars, it’s not too much of a stretch to say the distinction between the two sides can sometimes be as porous as, well, a chain-link fence.

The false report from Walaikum’s made the chase larger and more frantic, a whole posse of Boston Police, Municipal Police and even private security guards—likened at one point to a high-speed funeral procession. At the end of the chase, on a dead-end street, Cox tried to pursue one of the suspects by scaling a chain-link fence. Before he could get to the other side, he was knocked down and kicked in the face. The next thing he registered was that a police officer was trying to place him under arrest.

The book leaves no doubt this was quickly recognized as a mistake. Had the mistakes ended there, Lehr argues, there would have been disciplinary action against a few officers—but probably with no one losing a job, no federal prosecution of Kenneth Conley, and no harassment of Cox by anonymous tormenters. It’s also likely the city’s taxpayers would have been spared anything like the figure of $1.3 million dollars for eventually settling the civil rights suit brought by Cox.

But the next mistakes at the scene of the beating were more deliberate. The officers who beat Cox left him on the ground without calling for help. Though other officers did call for medical attention, the first supervisors on the scene made it more difficult to establish what happened and who was responsible. That even applied to the arrests of four suspects who had been chased.

Within a few first months after the beating—having started an internal investigation more than one week after the fact—officials in the Police Dept. showed signs of knowing about the mistakes and conflicting reports from officers on the scene. What police and prosecutors failed to do was to break the silence of witnesses who tried to avoid incriminating themselves and their fellow officers. And two supervisors who made it more difficult to determine what happened on the scene were later promoted.

According to Lehr, police officials failed to use opportunities for at least putting pressure on officers they suspected of taking part in the beating and cover-up. Commissioner Paul Evans did take disciplinary action against four officers, but that was more than 3½ years after the fact—and shortly before Cox’s civil rights suit went to trial. And Lehr notes this was also two years after any new information had been turned up on the case by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. “The truth was,” wrote Lehr, “Evans could have taken the officers off the street a long time ago.”

Another chain of error led to the conviction of Officer Kenneth Conley for perjury—supposedly for failing to admit he saw Cox’s beating. The conviction was later overturned, after evidence came to light showing weakness in the case against Conley—evidence that should have been disclosed to Conley’s attorney. Even that information might have languished in a folder, if not for a challenge to disciplinary action by Conley’s partner, Bobby Dwan.

Even more embarrassing for law enforcement agencies was the identification of officers involved in the beating by one of the suspects being chased, a drug-dealer from Mattapan, Robert “Smut” Brown. He gave testimony placing one officer at the scene, and he helped build the case against Conley by mistakenly assuming he was the white officer near Cox at the fence.

Later, while Conley was on trial, Brown tried to correct that mistake right after he spotted another white officer, Jimmy Burgio, in the lobby of the federal courthouse. When Brown tried to tell an FBI agent the white officer he saw at the fence was actually Burgio, there was no interest. In Lehr’s fallen world of bungling by authorities, it turns out the closest thing to a detective may have been a career criminal.