Police shootings spark plea for departmental reforms

New Haven Police Chief Francisco Ortiz has called for departmental reforms in light of allegations of misconduct in recent police shootings.

Ortiz spoke before the New Haven Public Safety Committee last week to answer questions about the two most recent police-involved shootings that occurred in October and December of 2004. He said the police academy has decided to implement changes that will go into effect on March 1, including a doubling of firearms training and extended mental-health training for recruits.

New Haven Police Union vice president Frank Lombardi said Ortiz has taken positive steps to address the recent allegations of police misconduct.

“There’s going to be additional training. That’s always positive,” Lombardi said. “We’re looking forward to seeing positive results forthcoming.”

Lombardi said the union is also open to the idea of supplying officers with alternate equipment in addition to a gun.

“There are other options available to follow the force continuum,” Lombardi said.

The “force continuum” is the term applied to the spectrum of force alternatives used by police officers to deal with subjects. If the subject shouts verbal offenses, for example, the officer approaches him with verbal commands, so that the actions of the officer and the subject are on a comparable scale, Lombardi said.

But Michael Jefferson, vice chairperson of Connecticut’s African-American Affairs Commission, said, though he favors more training for police officers, he does not believe the use of alternative weapons by officers will alleviate the situation.

“The use of Tasers and other weapons only invites more shootings,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson said he attributed the lack of concern for alleged police misconduct to Mayor John DeStefano Jr. because of the appointments he made to the Board of Police Commissioners.

“New Haven has one of the most powerful mayors because he has appointment power, and he actually appoints the Board of Police Commissioners, but he has never appointed an individual who has been a critic of police misconduct,” Jefferson said. “This gives the appearance that he’s doing something when he’s doing absolutely nothing.”

But DeStefano said he is satisfied with the work completed by the Board of Police Commissioners, which was established by the city charter to advise the chief of police concerning his duties and conduct toward the department. DeStefano said he has gotten “no sense” that the six members of the board have acted inappropriately in their dealings with the police commissioner.

Jefferson said he thinks racism is at the root of police misconduct. He said Ortiz reprimanded New Haven police officer Cleveland Roach last April for intervening when, according to witnesses, fellow police officers beat an unarmed black subject involved in a shooting.

“[Roach] was actually reprimanded while the others who did the beating actually got off,” Jefferson said.

Jefferson helped establish the Civilian Review Board to monitor citizen complaints against New Haven police officers. DeStefano issued an executive order calling for the formation of the board in March 2001, although only the chief and Board of Police Commissioners have legal power to discipline officers.

New Haven Police Lt. John Minardi, former Tactical and Administrative Strategies through Crime Analysis coordinator, said he thinks shootings involving only civilians constitute a far greater problem than those involving the police.

“Officer shootings do not happen regularly,” Minardi said. “They’re far rarer than those criminals are doing themselves. We pay much more money in bad management decisions than in lawsuits involving incidents in the use of force. For every 580 hours of service we get one complaint.”

Approximately 100 individuals were shot last year in New Haven, while about 76 percent of both the shooters and victims had past criminal histories, Minardi said.

“I just wish they had this huge outcry when these other shootings happen,” he said. “We’re horrified by all these shootings. People should be up in arms.”

In order to reduce the number of shootings involving past criminals, DeStefano said city officials visit inmates before their release from prison to talk to them about their obligations to society.

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