Nestled away in the cozy confines of Brewster Hall, studying the latest developments in French economic policy, political science professor David Cameron does not fit the profile of a community-minded New Haven resident. Like perhaps many Yale faculty members, he is sometimes more concerned with what is happening in Brussels than in Newhallville, and he has had more experience drafting book chapters than he has writing letters to his alderwoman.
But unlike most academics, Cameron escapes from the publish-or-perish world of research to police the police, as the East Rock neighborhood’s representative on the city’s oft-controversial Civilian Review Board.
The board, which Mayor John DeStefano Jr. created last March with an executive order, has had something of a rocky start. DeStefano designed the board to act as a sort of oversight committee: All complaints against New Haven police officers are first scrutinized by the department’s Internal Values and Ethics Division, or IVE. The board then reviews the department’s investigation and recommends appropriate punitive action to the chief of police. While the chief does not have to heed the board’s recommendation, he must explain himself in writing if he does otherwise.
In theory, the idea makes sense: Citizens representing the interests of the community can make sure their police department is fairly disciplining its own. But in order do this successfully, Cameron said, the board has to maintain a level of impartiality which is arguably not easily achieved.
“There’s a danger the board might be perceived as leaning so far toward the community that the police would view us as ‘cop bashers’ and be less inclined to cooperate,” Cameron said, explaining the delicate calculus the board must perform to be effective.
“On the other hand, there’s a danger the board might be perceived as just rubber stamping IVE’s investigations. One of the complications for the board is that if IVE is doing a great job, the board will appear to be just a rubber stamp — despite the fact that one reason IVE may be doing a great job may be because the board is looking over its shoulder.”
Even in its infancy, the board has been sharply criticized by some very vocal opponents. Local activist Emma Jones, whose son Malik was shot and killed by an East Haven police officer in 1997, has charged that DeStefano’s plan was politically motivated and equates to the police governing themselves.
“Since Sept. 11, the creation of this board is without doubt one of the greatest crimes perpetrated on the citizens of any town,” Jones said in November.
New Haven officials, such as James Horan, the city’s former chief administrative officer and one of the architects of the mayor’s plan for the board, have expressed uniform optimism when discussing the future of the board.
But Cameron says he is still uncertain.
“I really don’t know how effective it will be. It’s not independent of city officials, and it doesn’t have subpoena power like the Board of Police Commissioners,” he says, echoing concerns expressed by Jones and the board’s other critics. “There’s a possibility that it could end up being a paper tiger.”
Cameron also attributed some of his skepticism to the interaction among members of the board. Since its members are still in training — learning everything from police procedure to the finer points of law — the board has not yet emerged as a cohesive unit.
“We sit down, talk, and disappear,” Cameron says.
Cameron’s start on the board was fueled both by curiosity and enthusiasm.
At a December meeting, the East Rock neighborhood’s management team decided to send an envoy to the board to see if it was worth their involvement — and Cameron was one of only two people to volunteer.
“I’ve always thought an effective Civilian Review Board is a necessary ingredient for creating the trust that is required for effective community policing,” Cameron says.
He attended a meeting, which was concerned with the drafting of the board’s by-laws, and was subsequently chosen as the permanent representative.
East Rock was one of the last management teams in the city to elect a representative.
“We’re like Britain in the European Union,” Cameron quips. “We only joined after everyone else is already in.”
While fellow board member Robert Caplan said it is too early to tell if Cameron’s academic background and flair for analytical thought will be a boon to the burgeoning board, others clearly see the professor’s high-caliber educational pedigree — graduate degrees from the University of Michigan, Dartmouth, and the London School of Economics — as a substantial asset.
“It’s a good way to bring balance to the board,” said Kay Codish, the New Haven Police Department’s director of training and eduction. Codish, who is known for instituting a scholastic approach to police work in the New Haven Police Academy, said Cameron’s access to Yale’s resources and information will also be a welcome gain for the board.
“It’s satisfying to see someone in academia take an interest in the community, especially the very active interest in this case,” Codish said.
Always the political scientist, Cameron says the board of the future will not be the same as the one created by DeStefano’s executive order.
“One of the first things you learn in studying politics is that institutions take on a life of their own,” he says. “This board will surely transform and grow — for better or worse — from the current organization.”
But Cameron says he is not certain whether he will stick around to evolve with it.
“It’s hard to say if I’ll be a part of this board in a couple years,” Cameron says. “I honestly don’t know.”
Even if he does not continue to review complaints lodged against New Haven’s finest, Cameron will not step away from his community involvement any time soon. He is currently involved with the $29 million Celentano School renovation and expansion project, helping to decide what kinds of facilities and curricula are necessary for the magnet school, which serves children with special education needs.
And Cameron has another reason for sticking with his community projects that is more personal — literally.
“There’re a lot of great people in the community who’re committed to making this a better city and are working hard to make it a better city,” Cameron said. “It’s been rewarding getting to know them and working with them.”