At a public workshop in the Afro-American Cultural Center yesterday, community activists presented and discussed their proposals for an ordinance establishing a new Civilian Review Board.
About 20 people, a mixture of Yale students and New Haven residents, attended the two-hour meeting, organized in preparation for a public hearing to be held on Thursday night at City Hall to discuss the future of the board, which oversees police conduct in the city. The event’s organizers, New Haven activists Chris Desir and Kerry Ellington, presented their proposals for a new board with increased power to subpoena and conduct independent investigations and urged meeting attendees to testify in favor of these proposals at the Thursday meeting. In addition to the two powers, the proposals would endow the board with a larger budget and staff.
The current Civilian Review Board, established by an executive order from then-Mayor John DeStefano in 2001, had its meetings suspended in August while the Board of Alders prepared an ordinance to create a new one, as mandated by the City Charter revisions of 2013. Ellington said the meeting Thursday was only the first of many. In addition to the official public hearings, she said that she will hold informal workshops either weekly or biweekly to ensure that the process is “not thrown under the rug.”
According to Desir, community activists will focus on establishing the board’s ability to subpoena — a privilege the original Civilian Review Board did not hold, which lead to criticism from advocates of policing justice, some of whom attended the meeting.
“[Without it], the board would be a paper tiger — a PR shield for the Internal Affairs Department [of the NHPD],” Desir said.
Emma Jones, a prominent New Haven lawyer and activist whose son Malik was killed by East Haven police in Fair Haven after a car chase in 1997, said that if subpoena power proves impossible to obtain from the city, she will lobby state legislators in Hartford to provide subpoena power.
Jones, whose activism in the late 1990s helped prompt DeStefano to establish the board, criticized the currently suspended board for meeting at NHPD headquarters near Union Station, calling it “intimidating” to testify against police in their workplace. She said she will also push for the board’s complete independence from the NHPD and the ability to conduct its own investigations of police conduct. Previously, the board could recommend that the Internal Affairs department of the NHPD open an investigation, but the board could not perform its own inquiries.
If the proposals were to pass, the board’s investigations would be conducted by retired police officers, working pro bono and selected by the board, and by investigators trained by the board.
In addition to subpoena power, the board should also have the power to discipline and sanction officers, said Chris Garaffa, a New Haven resident in attendance at the meeting. Jones agreed.
“What gives us real authority is … discipline and sanction,” Jones said, but added that the power to recommend sanction might suffice.
The meeting’s organizers also said that they will seek to ensure that the board represents the entire city. Under the City Charter, “community engagement organizations” will recommend representatives to the mayor, who will appoint them, subject to the approval of the Board of Alders.
Jones said those community engagement organizations might include, among others, New Haven Family Alliance, People Against Police Brutality and the M.A.L.I.K.-Dawson Project, which drafted the proposals for the board. Some residents raised concerns that the mayor will only appoint members to the board who will defend the NHPD and act in the police’s interests. Jones said that only activism can prevent that from happening.
“We will not stand for the mayor making this political football,” she said. “We want people who are really representative of the people of this community.
In the 1999 municipal election, New Haven voters approved the establishment of a Civilian Review Board by a 4–1 margin.