Police review board, now a political issue, draws fire

Just days after Mayor John DeStefano Jr. signed an executive order creating a civilian complaint review board for the New Haven Police Department, a group of local activists and politicians gathered at City Hall Friday to condemn the order as inadequate and self-serving.

Local activist Emma Jones and Alderman Anthony Dawson, who are championing a review board ordinance currently before the Board of Aldermen, called their plan a far superior alternative to the DeStefano order, which Jones said “insults the intelligence of people in this community” by creating an inadequate “ad hoc committee.”

State Sen. Martin Looney, who will face DeStefano in the Democratic mayoral primary in September, similarly criticized the order, calling it a “paper tiger.”

“It is an entirely political move with no real teeth to it,” Looney said. “This is another board that is set up and designed for failure.”

DeStefano’s order created a review board that will audit civilian complaints and the findings of the NHPD’s Internal Value and Ethics Division, and recommend disciplinary action to Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing when appropriate. The community management teams in the city’s 10 police districts will select the majority of the 15 members and the remainder will be political appointees.

As currently constituted, the board cannot subpoena witnesses or have its members publicly elected, provisions that would require changes to state law and the city charter, respectively.

“For the mayor to put one together without subpoena power is just a slap in the face to our community,” Dawson said. “I do not support it and will not support it and will not lie down.”

The board championed by Jones and Dawson would have subpoena power and conduct its own independent investigations, while being largely publicly elected.

Supporters of the DeStefano order, including Alderman Jelani Lawson ’96, have said the two plans are similar except for the two provisions that cannot currently be enacted. Lawson said Wednesday the current board is a preferable step in the interim, because it will be up and running by June.

It remains unclear what would happen if an ordinance passed by the Board of Aldermen directly conflicted with the executive order already signed by DeStefano.

Meanwhile, Looney said as mayor he would examine reconstituting the Board of Police Commissioners itself, which already holds the power to subpoena officers and recommend discipline but consists of six mayoral appointees.

Richard Randall, a retired NHPD captain and former head of the Internal Values and Ethics Division, said he agreed with Looney that the police commission should be altered and criticized the speed with which DeStefano acted.

“I know how frustrating it is to have an investigation, and then to set it aside and not act upon it,” Randall said. “We’re very upset that the process wasn’t given a chance to work.”

Statements from the police union, which has opposed the creation of a new review board, indicate its officers may find Looney’s proposition more palatable than those of Jones and Dawson or DeStefano.

Officer Scott Baclawski, the union’s treasurer, said Wednesday the union believes changes to the police commission would be preferable to an entirely new board.

While Jones and Dawson thanked Looney for his support of a stronger board Friday, they expressed reservations about changing the police commission. Dawson said he supported the existing structure of the proposed ordinance, while Jones questioned whether the commission could be sufficiently reconstituted to be effective as a review board.

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