A long-running debate in New Haven over the creation of a civilian review board to oversee the New Haven Police Department broke out into open hostility during a press conference Friday.
Alderman Anthony B. Dawson, community activist Emma Jones, who heads the Malik organization, and Eric Smith, pastor of the Community Baptist Church, organized the conference to accuse Mayor John DeStefano Jr. of jumping on the bandwagon after he announced in his Feb. 12 State of the City address that he was planning to issue an executive order creating a civilian review board. The mayor’s proposal for the board excludes two controversial items for which the activists are asking: subpoena power and the ability to conduct investigations independent of the police department’s internal review procedures.
Currently, Connecticut state law forbids subpoena power for such boards, and union contracts do not allow for “parallel” investigations of police misconduct.
The proposal currently supported by the mayor was put forward by Alderman Jelani Lawson at a Jan. 22 meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Joint Committee on Legislation and Public Safety. The plan calls for “work[ing] towards passing [state] legislation that would allow New Haven to implement a civilian review board with subpoena power.” But in the meantime, it states, the city should implement a review board within “parameters presently — in the control of the City Administration and the New Haven Board of Aldermen.”
The board, as delineated by Lawson, would have the power to make recommendations about discipline to Police Chief Melvin Wearing, who would have to explain his reasoning in writing to the board in cases where he disagreed with its verdict. Its investigatory power would extend to filed police complaints and records from completed internal affairs investigations.
The board would also have the authority to order the department’s Internal Values and Ethics committee to investigate any police complaint or use its internal investigator to audit any such internal investigation.
As a conduit for communication between the city and police department, the civilian review board would also hold public meetings, publish reports to describe “trends in allegations,” and use “early warning systems” to flag officers who are subjects of unusually large numbers of complaints.
But none of this is enough for Jones and her supporters.
“What the mayor is proposing is really an impotent body, political and toothless, with no power and no will to do anything,” Jones said. Without powers to subpoena witnesses and conduct parallel investigations, she said, the group will only serve to “deceive” the community into believing they have a means of reprisal against wayward officers.
“In this case, something is in fact not better than nothing,” Jones said.
But the controversy is not just about conflicting ideas for the planned civilian review board. It is also, inevitably, about politics. Dawson, Jones and Smith said they called the conference not just to agitate for subpoena powers for the board, but also to criticize the mayor’s haste as being an “act of political desperation.”
Lawson said the criticism expressed at the press conference was “intellectually dishonest.”
“They were all around the table when we agreed that we would fight for subpoena power in the state legislature,” he said.
He defended the mayor’s decision to create the board through an executive order as a move designed to cut bureaucracy that would otherwise delay the formation of the new body.
Lawson said he hopes some form of the board will be implemented in the next few weeks.
While the mayor prepares to institute the board under his terms, Dawson said he and his supporters will move forward with their own proposal, which they plan to present to an aldermanic committee by early March.