Guests to the city of New Haven’s website may presume that the Elm City has an active Civilian Review Board, which tackles conversations of police misconduct across the city and seeks to address citizens’ concerns. However, the reality is quite the opposite: The board has not met in over a year, and nobody is quite sure when it will meet again.
The board’s absence was highlighted by both candidates during the Ward 1 Democratic Primary race this past week. Sarah Eidelson ’12, who ultimately won the nomination, told the News that she was one of the alders who strongly pushed for the board to be included in the city’s charter in 2013, adding that it is an imperative institution for the city moving forward.
After the board was suspended for review starting this past January, Eidelson’s focus shifted to understanding how the board could actually have a lasting impact. Currently, Eidelson said, the Board of Police Commissioners decides which officers actually receive disciplinary measures. She underscored that this structure needs to change.
“The power to discipline police officers can’t be given to the police officers,” Eidelson said, pushing for the new reformed board to have the power to investigate and discipline.
While Eidelson hopes for the board to move forward in this way, Michael Jefferson, the founder of the board, said the original grassroots approach had always worked well.
In 1995, Jefferson, then a radio show host, began the All Civilian Review Board with a group of volunteers from across the city. Their mission was to address issues of police misconduct, particularly with respect to police treatment of African-Americans, and to begin a conversation with the rest of the city on how to respond. The group, made up entirely of volunteers, ran a 24-hour hotline which residents could call with their concerns. While this did not happen too often, Jefferson said, there was a sense of support.
“I could bring the individuals on the air and get them to tell their side of the story,” he said. “[These issues] did not get swept under the rug … we made a difference.”
Changes took place in 1997 when Malik Jones, a young African-American man, was killed by a police officer. Communities began to rally for a formalized board, and the public eye fixed itself on the New Haven Police Department.
A decade later, the board became part of the charter.
But, “It lost most of its teeth at that point,” Jefferson said.
In January, over 200 people appeared in the aldermanic chambers of City Hall to testify that the Civilian Review Board needed more power, as Eidelson has proposed in her candidacy for Ward 1.
Chris Garaffa of the Connecticut branch of the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, who was present at the January meeting, said it has been frustrating to see continuous conversation but little action.
“Unfortunately, I feel like City Hall and Union Avenue are keeping the city in the dark on this,” he said.
Both Garaffa and Jefferson said it is important to see one particular proposal implemented: the MALIK/Dawson proposal. The document, which was written in the months after Jones’ death, pushes for a formalized version of the ACRB that Jefferson was already working on. Under the proposal, the board would be entirely independent of the New Haven Police Department and composed entirely of civilian members. They would also have the power to subpoena testimony from officers and the authority to recommend discipline and sanctions to officers brought before the board.
The proposal was brought to the city in 2001 when DeStefano issued an executive order for the introduction of some kind of CRB, but it has yet to receive a full response.
“We cannot wait; now is the time for all of us who stand for what is right and just to take action,” Jones’ mother wrote in the 2001 proposal.
The lack of immediacy on the issue is what worries Garaffa, and other members of ANSWER, the most. Eidelson said the same, as did her former challenger Fish Stark ’17, making it a key issue in the run-up to Wednesday’s primary.
The timeline on the future of the board remains unclear. Both Stark and Eidelson said, ahead of Wednesday’s election, that they did not have a concrete timeline for the board. Alder Brian Wingate, chair of the Public Safety Commission, did not respond to a request for comment.
“The people of New Haven have been demanding a board for decades now,” Garaffa said. “For all the talk and all the political maneuvering, we don’t have anything.”
Garaffa said it was encouraging to see conversations about bringing back the board, but he was discouraged to hear both candidates talk about having more officers on the street. He added that increasing the number walking beats would provide even more opportunities for harassment by officers on the streets.
For Jefferson though, it is not the nature of those on the beats but those on the Board of Police Commissioners. Jefferson commended current board members, Kevin Diaz and former Alder Greg Smith, for their active work to address police misconduct. While Garaffa and other activists in the city have protested decisions made by NHPD Chief Dean Esserman, Jefferson said Esserman has done “a very credible job.”
Moving forward, he said finding the best people for the board should be the priority of the city.
“You have to have individuals on the board whom people trust: individuals who have a pulse on the community,” he said. “You don’t need a CRB if you have an effective police commission, a chief invested in the community and a good internal affairs unit.”