Politics as Unusual: Conley’s troubling record of clearing cops who kill minorities

July 19, 2013
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Word on the street is that the acquittal of George Zimmerman might catalyze a meaningful dialogue about race and power. In cities coast to coast, a conversation has already manifested, with the biggest protest crowds since Occupy uniting to express outrage and to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin. Around the Hub, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the momentum gathered Sunday night in Dudley Square—where an estimated 1,500 demonstrators congregated for support and speeches—will fade out or be channeled into a larger movement. But if residents need an outlet for their anger, they’d find a natural fit in campaigning against Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, who is running at the head of the mayoral pack.

The Zimmerman case was unique in several regards, starting with the peculiarity of Florida’s so-called justice system. Still, if we’re talking about how people of color are generally discounted by those in powerful positions—from the cops to the courts—then the similarities between Boston and the Sunshine State are obvious. Since becoming DA more than 10 years ago, Conley has investigated more than a dozen police killings of minorities and issued several findings that remain controversial. To be fair, the ugly trend was underway when he took office, with eight fatal BPD shootings between 2000 and 2002 alone. In his role, though, Conley has offered unconditional clemency, and cleared officers in every instance.

There’s the 2002 case of Eveline Barros-Cepeda, the 25-year-old who was shot and killed while crouching in the back seat of a car that was fleeing after hitting a police officer. Though the BPD tweaked its deadly force policy soon after the incident—clarifying that cops shouldn’t open fire on vehicles unless a passenger is firing at them—Conley found the discharge to be justified. The DA told reporters that the shooter, who claimed to believe that his partner was being dragged by the car he shot at, “was faced with a momentous decision—take the the only action available to him to stop the car, firing his weapon, or do nothing while his partner risked being killed. He chose to act, and that action was within the law.”

Though all markedly different from the Martin killing, there have been plenty of comparable causes for concern around here—from the death of Bert Bowen, who was shot three times by police after fleeing a traffic stop in 2004, to the fatal shooting of Mark Fernandes McMullen, who was gunned down in 2011 by two Boston cops who chased him 17 miles down I-93. Of them all, the one that reeks the most like the Zimmerman ordeal may be what transpired nearly three years ago at Roxbury Community College, when a swarm of cops pummeled an unarmed 16-year-old in plain sight of students and on camera. Though the teenager lived through the beating, the cold assault left lasting scars.

Typically, the DA’s Office only investigates police brutality in the event that someone dies. After the RCC video went viral, though, BPD Commissioner Ed Davis passed the hot potato to Conley. Davis picked the right guy to clear his men. Despite explicit video of cops pinning down the teen—kneeing him and delivering blows to his legs, back and ribs—Conley found that there was no “excessive force” used in the arrest. As was first noted by the Blackstonian alternative newspaper, it was the second time that the DA failed to prosecute Officer Michael McManus, who, two years prior to jumping in the RCC scrum, had initiated the arrest of an Emmanuel College student who died after being tackled by police in the Fenway area.

None of this is to say that cops aren’t often put in tough positions. Rather, it’s to suggest that Boston’s own troubling past should be considered in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. It’s trite to scold folks for caring more about Martin than they do about other victims, but it’s also time to identify local authority figures who enable such injustices; in January, for example, McManus was awarded a BPD medal of excellence for his “continued dedication to duty and professionalism”—as were the killers of McMullen, who won the department’s highest honor for their lethal actions. The DA recently told the Globe that he would keep Davis as commissioner, all but ensuring the continuation of a status quo in which cops are applauded for killing and assaulting minorities. If you’re looking for a mayor to hold police accountable, then Conley probably isn’t your guy.

Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain.

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