Two-and-a-half years after voters approved the creation of a civilian review board as part of New Haven’s once-a-decade charter revisions, the board has yet to materialize.
A provisional civilian review board — which would oversee investigations into allegations of police misconduct — was established by an executive order from former Mayor John DeStefano Jr. in 2001. The provisional group ended its meetings in September 2014, after which Chief Administrative Officer Mike Carter suspended meetings of the provisional group in anticipation of the creation of a new, formally codified board. The Board of Alders held a public hearing in January 2015 to discuss what this new board would look like. Hundreds turned out to deliver testimony on the importance of creating a board backed by subpoena power and fully independent of the New Haven Police Department. But more than a year out, progress on the board has come to a standstill.
“The Board of Alders had promised that they were going to vote one way or the other on it and we haven’t heard anything,” said Norman Clement, a prominent member of the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism Coalition, which has organized many anti-brutality protests in the last two years.
Carter said he has little involvement with the process of creating a new review board. Though he said he is unaware of any progress on this new board, he noted that Mayor Toni Harp’s committee on police-community relations has met regularly in recent months.
Emma Jones — the mother of Malik Jones, who died at the hands of East Haven police after a car chase nearly two decades ago — said she has also heard little about the new review board since the flurry of hearings and testimonies that took place last year.
Rev. Steven Cousin, the pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in New Haven, said alders held discussions with community members in the middle of 2015 to help draw up plans for the board, but said he does not know if anything has come of those discussions.
The formation of a civilian review board is an emotional issue for many New Haven residents, dozens of whom came out in force last year to share their stories of harassment at the hands of police. Beaver Hills Alder Brian Wingate, who chaired the Public Safety Committee throughout 2014 and 2015, said the sensitivity of the issue makes legislation difficult.
“This is something that you’ve really got to take your time on,” Wingate, who is now the vice chair of the Public Safety Committee, said. “With this kind of situation, not everyone’s going to be happy. The expectation for the review board is so great.”
Wingate said the alders began reaching out to community members to crowdsource ideas for the review board last year. Since then, he said, he and other alders have discussed drafts of new legislation with East Rock Alder Jessica Holmes, who chairs the Legislation Committee all new ordinances must pass through, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Wingate said turnover in committee chairmanships has caused some of the delay. But he said he expects an ordinance will be passed in the near future.
“With the new chair [of the Public Safety Committee Quinnipiac Meadows Alder Gerald Antunes] and everything, we’re trying to get this done in the next few months,” Wingate said. “By midsummer, we should be able to close this out.”
Throughout the process of drafting the ordinance that will empower a new board, activists have been adamant about the powers that board must have. Not only must the board be independent from the police department, activists say, it must also have the power to compel police officers to submit evidence during the course of its inquiries.
Clement said the importance of allowing the review board to conduct its own investigations into allegations of misconduct cannot be understated. The current system, which allows the police department’s internal affairs division to run inquiries, exhibits pro-police bias, he said, adding that any organization investigating itself necessarily is at a higher risk of bias.
Jones said she traveled across the country after her son’s death to research civilian review boards. One of the strongest she found was in New York. She said she incorporated some of its powers into the proposal her anti-police brutality organization drafted.
“Number one was that the board should definitely be independent from the police department itself,” Jones said, emphasizing that the new board should not be a “paper tiger.” “Number two, there should not be any police officers on the board. And number three, and probably most importantly, the board should have subpoena power. And number four, that it should have a budget and an independent staff from the city.”
On the last count, Jones is likely to be disappointed, at least for the coming fiscal year. Harp’s budget for fiscal year 2017 allocates no funds for a board or any staff members.
Though the civilian review board has not yet moved past the drawing board, the city has pursued other means of fostering relations between the police and community members. Cousin is an organizer of a clergy ambassador program, through which members of the city’s clergy reach out to police officers to talk to them about the issues that matter in their communities.
“The clergy ambassador program is for clergy to go and actually talk to our communities about the work the police department is doing and enable to police department to share information with the clergy,” Cousin said. “The clergy can also go back to the police department to talk about the issues that affect our communities.”
Cousin said the program’s members meet monthly with NHPD Chief Dean Esserman and his assistant chiefs to discuss issues concerning the police department. For instance, he noted that the program gave police officers implicit biases training Feb. 24 in order to help officers become more aware of the subconscious prejudices they may hold. Cousin said the program aims to foster closer ties between the police force and the communities it serves.
Despite tensions between the police and public across the country, Cousin expressed optimism about the department that calls New Haven home.
“No police department is perfect, just like humanity is not perfect,” Cousin said. “But I do believe that New Haven’s police department is a shining example in trying to get it right. And they’re trying to use whatever resources they have to make policing in the 21st century better for communities of color.”