In 1997, an East Haven cop fatally shot Malik Jones, an unarmed black New Havener. It wasn’t the first time police profiled and used excessive force against a person of color in our city, and it won’t be the last. But it inspired a grassroots movement that brought together citizens from every corner of New Haven — including students — to fight for accountable policing.
In 1999, the year of the next citywide election, Elm City residents voted for a referendum creating a civilian review board that would have been historic for its strength and community input. The majority of its members would be elected, it would be required to resolve complaints within 90 days and it would be empowered to subpoena officers and formally recommend disciplinary action.
In 2001, two years later, with a looming Democratic primary battle against State Senator Martin Looney on the horizon, Mayor John DeStefano signed an executive order authorizing a watered-down version of the Civilian Review Board that voters had chosen in 1999. It preserved important provisions from the original proposal — the board could subpoena officers and recommend discipline to the Board of Police Commissioners, which would have to respond in writing if it did not adopt the recommendation. But it removed, among other things, elected members and the timeline for resolving complaints.
Finally, residents of New Haven had a way to make sure their complaints about police misconduct were heard. But problems persisted: The process for submitting a report to the committee was opaque, the processes for selecting committee members were questionable and despite DeStefano’s executive order, the board never gained the power to subpoena officers. The public perception was that the board was a nice symbol but ineffective: not a real check on police power.
In 2011, a coalition of Board of Alders candidates, organized and funded by Yale’s blue- and pink-collar unions, won a majority of seats on the Board of Alders in a wave election, besting many incumbents who had DeStefano’s backing. In a tragic year that saw a near-record 34 homicides in New Haven, public safety was on everyone’s minds, and the new majority coalition on the Board of Alders championed a return to community policing and greater public accountability for the New Haven Police Department.
In 2013, the new Board of Alders proposed a revision to the city’s charter that committed to replacing the old, weak CRB with a new, powerful one that would better represent citizens. The measure overwhelmingly passed by public referendum, and advocates for police accountability were hopeful.
It is now April 19, 2016. The Civilian Review Board has not met since December 2014. It has not, according to the New Haven Register, reviewed a case since August 2014 — before current sophomores stepped foot on campus.
The Board of Alders’ Joint Legislation and Public Safety Committee was tasked with proposing the structure of the new CRB. A public meeting in January 2015 drew over 200 attendees and lively debate. A second meeting was scheduled for last June, but according to the city of New Haven’s website, it was postponed. It has not been rescheduled. It has been over a year since the aldermanic committee has met.
Sometimes good change takes time. Often it is better for policymakers to be thoughtful and cautious rather than hasty. But when no public meetings have been held on the issue for over a year, it’s safe to say that public officials aren’t carefully deliberating their responsibility to create a civilian review board; they’re ignoring it.
New Haven has made incredible strides with community policing: Walking beats, de-escalation training and direct engagement between officers and residents are practiced every day by the NHPD. But at a time when police violence against people of color is rampant as ever — even in New Haven — it is critical that citizens have the power to fight against police misconduct.
A civilian review board is not just good policy — it’s legally required by the city charter. Earlier this year, the Board of Alders felt so strongly about following the city’s charter to the letter that they spent $250 an hour to sue the Board of Education for a perceived charter violation. By their own logic, couldn’t the Board of Alders also be sued for allowing a year and a half to go by without a CRB meeting of any kind?
Students have fought alongside New Haveners for police accountability for decades, and we should continue to do so. Protest with groups like ANSWER that rally against police brutality, often less than a block from our dorms. Better yet, contact our alders, Sarah Eidelson ’12 and Jeanette Morrison — who serve on the dormant “Joint Legislation and Public Safety Committee” — and tell them that New Haveners have already waited 19 years for a powerful civilian review board. They shouldn’t have to wait 20.
Fish Stark is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .