For the residents who showed up at a forum last night to discuss the trials and tribulations of the New Haven Police Department, one former police officer’s words seemed to sum up their concerns.
“Show it to me, and I’ll believe it.”
These words, spoken by former officer Cliff Templeton, captured the concerns of the over 30 people who attended Tuesday’s forum, held by the city-appointed Independent Accountability Panel to review and discuss changes proposed for the police department. Though most in the small crowd said they were pleased with draft recommendations issued in late August, several expressed concerns about how seriously the city would take the proposals and who would be held accountable for implementing them.
The Police Executive Research Forum was hired by the city to review and offer recommendations for all aspects of the NHPD, in the aftermath of the March arrests of two narcotics unit officers on corruption charges. After several months of investigations and interviews, PERF issued a draft of a report with recommendations that included a renewed focus on community policing, the addition of an outside assistant chief to oversee a “professional standards bureau,” the reestablishment of a highly-trained narcotics unit and a revamping of internal affairs.
At this last of four public forums hosted by the independent panel — which was appointed by Mayor John DeStefano to provide an outside evaluation of PERF’s work — co-chair Jeffrey Meyer ’85 called on participants to discuss “what you think is wrong, what you think is missing and even what you think is right” about the report.
Many of those who spoke at the forum did just that, saying they think PERF correctly identified many of the problems with the NHPD, especially its trouble with following through with complaints. But they also generally expressed a lack of trust in the NHPD’s ability to overhaul the department.
“The [municipal] ID card is an amazing, progressive idea,” Jane Nelson said in reference to the city’s program granting multi-purpose IDs to all residents, regardless of their immigration status. “Why can’t we do that with policing?”
Other residents lamented what they said was a lack of immediate progress on the part of the NHPD, citing the continued presence of “cowboy” officers on the streets.
Meanwhile, multiple speakers said they were worried the NHPD would not learn from its mistakes. This review of the department followed the corruption arrest of Lt. William “Billy” White, the former head of the narcotics division. Residents suggested that his corruption was an “open secret” long before White was arrested in the culmination of a federal sting operation, but that the department had failed to act on those concerns.
“When I saw the newspaper with Billy White, I said, ‘Finally,’” city resident Kimberly said.
But the one teenager to participate in the forum, which consisted of mainly older adults, commended the police for their recently increased efforts to connect with youth. He said he hopes that young people will stop looking down on “snitching” and cooperate more openly with police officers.
Despite citizens’ concerns about how the city will be held accountable — which DeStefano’s Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said was the role of the Board of Police Commissioners, the mayor and himself — participants generally said they were happy to have this opportunity to express their views.
“I’ve been reading recently that people in this city aren’t participating in this process,” Ken Joiner said. “I’m here to make comments to help the police department.”
Indeed, last night’s group was actually very large compared to the crowd at another IAP forum held Thursday at NHPD headquarters. Several participants said the city should have made more of an effort to publicize this and last week’s forums.
“Turnout was better than last time, but last time was a bust,” Meyers said. “It’s a challenge to try to ask a community at large to come in and comment.”
Over the next week, members of the IAP will meet to present their assessments and the comments of community members to city officials and PERF. PERF is expected to issue its final report around October.