Take about a dozen ordinary New Haven residents with 9-to-5 jobs: nurses, attorneys, hospital workers, psychology professionals and an information technology manager, to name a few. Add over 15 hours of rudimentary training in police procedure by some of New Haven’s finest, including Police Chief Melvin H. Wearing.
Despite what it sounds like, this is far from the Elm City’s version of “Police Academy”; it is the newly operational — and still controversial — civilian review board, a vehicle for auditing complaints against New Haven police officers.
The board, which Mayor John DeStefano Jr. created in March with an executive order, is moving forward despite criticism from some of the community activists who proposed it in the first place.
All but two of the New Haven Police Department’s district management teams have appointed representatives to the board. The Dixwell team is in the process of picking its member, while East Shore has declined to send one. The board is currently writing bylaws for its own operation and hopes to begin reviewing cases at its December meeting, review board member Robert Caplan said.
After a complaint is filed against an officer, the New Haven Police Department’s Division of Internal Values and Ethics conducts an investigation. The review board will examine the resulting report and either request further investigation by the department or recommend disciplinary action to Wearing, said James Horan, the city’s former chief administrative officer and the architect of the plan.
If Wearing takes steps other than those suggested by the board, he must make a public written notification, Horan said.
But to make sure that board recommendations were well-founded, Horan helped organize training sessions for the group.
Speakers have addressed the board about elements of police procedure, as well as the background of a typical police officer, Caplan said. Administrators, attorneys and police personnel talked with the group about NHPD hiring practices, officer training and expectations.
“Knowing where an officer is coming from will help us put our evaluation of his actions in the proper context,” Caplan said. “That’s the only way we can police the police.”
But Emma Jones, a longtime proponent of a review board, said the group in its current form will not be effective.
Jones, the head of the police watchdog Malik organization, said that the degree of police involvement with the current board is too high for it to be considered an objective third party.
“It’s the police who are doing the training and the investigating,” Jones said. “What we have here isn’t a group of private citizens policing the police — it’s the police policing themselves.”
Jones also said that the idea for a board was originally hers, and that when she and several supporters — including Alderman Anthony Dawson — proposed creating a review board with subpoena power, the mayor rejected it outright. The board created by DeStefano’s executive order does not possess subpoena power, which is not currently permissible under state law.
Jones also said the only reason DeStefano recently expressed interest in the idea was to gain favor during his reelection campaign.
“It’s nothing more than a political paper tiger,” she said. “The mayor should be ashamed of himself.”
But Horan said DeStefano’s motive was not political.
After an initiative in favor of creating a review board passed by a 4-to-1 margin of New Haven voters in the November 1999 election, DeStefano began to reconsider his stance on a review board, which he had previously opposed, Horan said.
Horan added that DeStefano was simply responding to what residents wanted, not what he thought may have garnered him extra votes.
But that still does not have Jones convinced.
“It’s unfortunate, because this board has no possibility of being a true review board,” Jones said.
“Since Sept. 11, the creation of this board is without doubt one of the greatest crimes perpetrated on the citizens of any town.”