Amid a national conversation on race and police brutality, and coming in the wake of the detention at gunpoint of Tahj Blow ’16 by the Yale Police Department, the Board of Alders’ Legislation and Public Affairs committees met last night to begin the process of creating a new Civilian Review Board in the city, intended to hear, review and investigate complaints from residents about police conduct.
Before an audience of about 100 people, the alders heard testimony from city officials and residents. The hearing was the first official step toward establishing a new board, as mandated by the City Charter revisions of 2013. The current CRB has been suspended since August as the alders prepare to write and pass an ordinance creating a new one. Testimony at the hearing focused on the issues of possible subpoena, investigatory and disciplinary power for the proposed board, and the problem of police brutality in New Haven.
“Tonight is the beginning of a conversation about the new Civilian Review Board,” said Ward 9 Alder Jessica Holmes, chair of the Legislation Committee, who organized the hearing with Ward 29 Alder Brian Wingate, chair of the Public Safety Committee.
Many residents testified in favor of endowing the board with subpoena power, the power to compel witnesses to testify before the board. Christopher Desir, a New Haven community organizer, said that the subpoena power is crucial for the board’s success; Kerry Ellington, a fellow organizer, echoed his sentiment.
“If the board doesn’t have the subpoena power and doesn’t have the power to discipline the officers who are out there beating us, there’s no point in having the meeting,” said Rodney Williams, a co-chair for the Ward 21 Democratic Committee.
But, according to John Rose Jr., the city’s corporation counsel, granting subpoena power to the board might prove difficult.
Rose said that, because municipalities are the creation of the state , the city would require a special act of state legislation that could give the CRB the ability to compel witnesses to testify. Only the Connecticut Superior Court, he said, can enforce the subpoena.
A loophole might be possible, though, he added: the CRB can request a subpoena from Board of Alders President and Ward 5 Alder Jorge Perez, whom Rose said is legally allowed to enforce subpoenas.
In addition to the subpoena power, speakers emphasized the importance of giving the board the ability to conduct investigations independent of the police department. Chris Garaffa, an organizer with Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, said the CRB must be independent from the Internal Affairs Department of the NHPD, which the police department uses to conduct internal investigations.
Jacob Wasserman ’16, a co-chair for the Ward 1 Democratic Committee, agreed with Garaffa. Wasserman added that the CRB should have some oversight over the YPD.
“I want to make sure that the CRB has authority over the YPD,” Wasserman said. Referencing the Blow’s detention at gunpoint earlier this week, Wasserman said that the CRB can help ensure that the investigation of the incident results in an appropriate and transparent outcome.
Other speakers at the committee meeting expressed concerns surrounding the possible misuse of the CRB after its establishment. Under the terms of the City Charter, community organizations will propose candidates to the CRB to the Board of Alders; the mayor will appoint the candidates approved by the alders.
According to Eric Maroney, a middle school teacher in New Haven, that system might be exploited for corrupt purposes. He said some community organizations depend on the mayor’s office for their funding, and they might be wary of nominating a candidate whom Mayor Toni Harp dislikes.
Ron Codianni, a former member of the CRB, agreed with Maroney. Codianni expressed concern that the alders would make the CRB “machine-backed,” and that City Hall would fill the board with people who represent its own interests.
Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand GRD ’99 said that the hearing was only the first step in the long process of creating a new CRB.
“It’s going to take a lot,” he said. “It’s going to take an ordinance, it’s going to take administrative wherewithal, and it’s going to take money … I understand the need is urgent, because it is, but if we rush this, it won’t work.”
The Board of Alders has not yet scheduled a second public hearing to discuss the CRB.