As a meeting room in the Elk’s Club on Webster Street began to fill up Tuesday night, New Haven police officers and community members mingled — though perhaps not entirely comfortably — in anticipation of the heated discussion to come.
Several of Mayor John DeStefano’s most vocal critics moderated the community meeting about the recent arrests of two New Haven Police Department officers. The moderators questioned activists and officials alike, most notably NHPD Chief Francisco Ortiz, with brief comments by community members. The participants focused on the issue of “police policing themselves” and the effectiveness of the NHPD’s current complaint process.
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“Do you feel legitimate tonight?” Greater New Haven and Connecticut NAACP President Scot X. Esdaile asked the crowded room as the meeting came to order.
Esdaile’s remarks were in reference to comments attributed to a mayoral spokesman in local media accounts, in which the spokesman referred to the meeting as not “legitimate” because the city did not organize it. To counter that insinuation, Esdaile said, he introduced his fellow moderators: American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut Executive Director Roger Vann, African-American Affairs Commission Chair Michael Jefferson and civil rights attorney Dawne Westbrook.
Throughout the meeting, the moderators did not shy away from criticizing DeStefano for his handling of the arrests of Lt. William White, head of the narcotics unit, and Detective Justen Kasperzyk. On several occasions they repeated that the mayor had declined their invitation to the meeting, even though Ortiz did attend.
After the meeting, newly appointed mayoral spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said the mayor did not attend because it was more important for the police department to be there.
“This is really an opportunity for the police department to hear and really listen to concerns and not really a political event for the mayor to take the limelight of,” she said.
Jefferson began the questioning with Rick Randall, a former NHPD captain who ran the department’s Internal Values and Ethics division until he retired in 1999. The division investigates complaints against officers.
Randall said the complaint process had improved since he implemented a computer database at the start of his term, and he thinks the division can be instrumental in controlling, if not eliminating, corruption. But he said the biggest obstacle is when people do not follow through on complaints or do not file official complaints at all.
But Randall’s confidence in the internal complaint system was challenged by the next speaker, criminal defense attorney Norman Pattis, who said he has sued the police on behalf of his clients hundreds of times.
King Downing, the national coordinator for the ACLU’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling, echoed Pattis’ claims that many cases of misconduct go unreported.
“[Who’s had a] personal experience of racial profiling, use of force or corruption?” he said, as the majority of the people in the room raised their hands.
Even more raised their hands when he asked who had a personal friend or family member who had been affected.
But during his testimony, Ortiz said he did not think misconduct and corruption were very widespread problems. He said the NHPD did a good job of addressing complaints, though the crowd snickered when he said he had not looked up how many officers have been disciplined for misconduct.
Ortiz also provoked crowd reaction when he referred to the meeting as “theater,” saying Jefferson was too selective in his description of a case in which Jefferson said Ortiz disciplined an officer for protecting an alleged shooter from other overly aggressive officers.
As in earlier public statements, Ortiz said he is “disgusted” by the actions of White and Kasperzyk, as well as by police misconduct in general, and that he does expect further arrests. He also said he had no reason to suspect the two officers of misconduct before the FBI investigation.
After his testimony, the panelists thanked Ortiz for answering their questions and the other officers there for attending.
“The Chief did not have to come here this evening,” Vann said. “We may disagree on some things, but there were others invited, including the mayor, who did not come.”