Police abuse complaint process draws scrutiny

The legislation committee convened Thursday night to hear public testimony about the process of filing a complaint about police misconduct.
The legislation committee convened Thursday night to hear public testimony about the process of filing a complaint about police misconduct. Photo by Amy Wang.

Police brutality took center stage at City Hall Thursday night.

At a meeting of the legislation committee, during which committee members heard from the Civilian Review Board, the City of New Haven Peace Commission, the New Haven Police Department and the public, residents said they found the current system for filing police-abuse complaints ineffective and inaccessible, while representatives from the NHPD defended it.

Alfred Marder, chairman of the City of New Haven Peace Commission, said that while the complaint forms are easily accessible, it can be daunting for citizens to fulfill the in-person interview portion of the complaint process, which requires them to go to the NHPD and speak face-to-face with an officer.

“A lot of the investigations aren’t completed because the filer of the complaint doesn’t follow through, and there are quite a few in which they haven’t been able to be contacted,” Marder said.

Marder added that the Civilian Review Board — which was established as an independent agency to review and act upon citizens’ complaints of police misconduct — has faced a heavy reduction in staff in recent years, with all of its full-time staff members reduced to working part-time.

The committee also heard from several members of the public who claimed that they had personally encountered police brutality. New Haven resident Abel Sanchez said he was thrown against a wall and beaten by a NHPD officer after inquiring after his brother-in-law’s arrest, recalling that the police officer repeatedly called him “stupid” and threatened him with a night in jail.

“I made a complaint, but the police station and internal affairs — they never do anything,” Sanchez said. “We need somebody to hear us, because when we go to the police department they don’t pay attention to us, and that’s not fair.”

Representatives of the NHPD — comprised of chief administrative officer Robert Smuts and three other department members involved in the Internal Affairs department — said the NHPD “does not tolerate abusive behavior” from its officers and takes all civilian evidence of police abuse seriously. Lieutenant Tony Duff, the head of NHPD’s Internal Affairs Unit, said that if people call to report abusive police actions, the NHPD guides them through the proper complaint-filing process.

Duff added that even if citizens do not observe immediate results based on their testimony, every complaint is recorded in a computer program that tallies the number of allegations filed against individual police officers. If an officer gets a certain number of complaints within a certain time period, Duff said, the NHPD stops sending him or her on patrol and begins a process of mediation.

Still, some present at the meeting were dissatisfied with the current system of intervention in place.

New Haven-based lawyer Paul Garlinghouse, who has represented clients alleging police abuse, criticized the NHPD for allowing officers to accumulate multiple offenses before taking action. Ward 22 Alderwoman Jeanette Morrison said the complaint process was “not user-friendly” — in large part because citizens are intimidated by police officers — and should be revised. Sanchez said the police officer who assaulted him is still working on the street.

“The only thing I want is justice,” he said. “I don’t know what else we have in this country.”

Over the summer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began and then dropped a probe into the conduct of NHPD Sgt. Chris Rubino, who allegedly beat a handcuffed 24-year-old man who had been fighting with officers during a June 2 arrest on Temple Street.

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