City creates new police review board

In a move that he likened to the birth of a baby — with all of the associated difficulties and headaches that suggests — Mayor John DeStefano Jr. signed an executive order at City Hall Wednesday creating a new civilian complaint review board for the New Haven Police Department.

The board’s creation will not conclude the years of debate among activists, politicians and police officers. Indeed, the order will have to contend with another proposal for a review board currently before the Board of Aldermen that was put forward by Alderman Anthony Dawson and local activist Emma Jones.

“The particular virtue of this announcement today is that New Haven is moving forward,” DeStefano said. “I do not suggest or argue that this is the best way to do it.”

Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing and Richard Epstein, the chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, both spoke in favor of the new board. Several other members of the commission, including Jonathan Einhorn, who had expressed opposition to a review board in the past, stood with the mayor as he signed the order.

DeStefano said Chief Administrative Officer James Horan, who crafted the order and will be in charge of its implementation, has assured him the board will be up and running by June.

The board will audit all civilian complaints received by the Police Department, as well as investigations conducted by the department’s internal affairs bureau. The board will also publish regular reports and recommend disciplinary action to Wearing, who will have final discretion over discipline but must explain his decisions in writing if they differ from the recommendations.

Jones said there are three important differences between the board created by the order and her proposal: The current board will have 11 of its 15 members selected by the community management teams in each police district, rather than by public election; it will not be able to conduct its own investigations; and it will have no subpoena power.

Public election of members would require a revision of the city charter, and the board could not have subpoena power without a change in the state law.

DeStefano said he was “personally supportive” of subpoena power, which members of the city’s delegation to the state Legislature are currently pursuing. But he also stressed that officers could refuse to testify even if they were subpoenaed.

Jones and Dawson have said they want both the election and subpoena power proposals implemented before the board is created.

“I think that what the mayor has set up has the greatest possibility of being just another impotent committee that has no authority except to tell the police that are investigating complaints to go back and look at it again,” Jones said Wednesday night.

But Alderman Jelani Lawson ’96, who has played a large role in mediating debate on the issue and crafting the board, said waiting on the Legislature or a potential charter revision would take too long.

“In order for the Jones-Dawson proposal to be fully realized, we’re talking about waiting until at least 2002,” Lawson said. “I really think most of the citizens of New Haven would rather have something in the interim.”

On the other side, the leaders of the city’s police union have expressed consistent opposition to the creation of a new board, especially one with subpoena power.

“The union’s position is that we feel that the current setup with the Board of Police Commissioners already constitutes what should be considered a civilian review board,” said Officer Scott Baclawski, the union’s treasurer. “If you feel that changes need to be made, our feeling is that you’re better off doing that than going and doing something all over again.”

The Board of Police Commissioners, made up of six private citizens, already holds subpoena power by state law.

Baclawski said the union sent a mailing to the mayor, aldermen and state legislators expressing its opposition to the new review board.

But Wearing said he does not expect significant opposition from his officers because the board will stress objectivity. He also compared the review board, a concept many Connecticut police departments have rejected, to the adoption of community policing in the early 1990s.

“Most of the police departments in the state rejected community policing 10 years ago, and now they’re calling and asking for our reports,” Wearing said.

DeStefano lauded Horan for putting many hours of work into the board’s creation and said he hopes it is given a chance.

“I do not think that this is a proposal that will please everyone,” DeStefano said. “I’m just hoping everyone will look at what it does.”

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