Sammy Westfall

“Shame! Shame! Shame!” Elm City residents shouted at alders at the end of a Joint Legislation and Public Safety Committee’s hearing.

Residents left the hearing in disappointment after a resolution for a new civilian review board was passed on to the full Board of Alders without a critical component — subpoena power.

Elm City residents from various walks of life gathered at City Hall on Tuesday evening to voice their opinions on the terms of a proposal to establish a civilian review board — a body that would oversee police misconduct in the city. The board became a requirement in New Haven’s charter after a 2013 referendum passed citywide.

Community members testified in three-minute increments before alders on the joint committee voted on amendments and ultimately the proposal as a whole. Though the ordinance requiring the formation of a civilian review board overwhelmingly passed five years ago in the referendum, students, residents and community leaders registered discontent with the new proposal, citing its ineffectiveness and repeatedly calling for amendments to give the municipal body the power of independent investigation. But despite the testimony, the committee members voted down an amendment that would give the proposed board such purview. Then, to conclude public discussion on the proposed resolution, the committee passed the resolution — which testifiers decried as “toothless” — onto the full board.

“I don’t understand what happened or how we got to this point,” Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen — one of two alders to support the amendment that would have given the proposed board independent investigation power — said after the vote. “The police chief is in support of [those powers]. The community members are in support of it. I’m not understanding why we’re not trying to adjust this.” 

New Haven has pushed for a civilian review board for more than two decades. The first proposal for an ordinance came in 1995, but never reached a full vote in the Board of Alders.

In 1997, the East Haven shooting of 21-year-old Malik Jones invigorated activists on the cause. But before alders managed to propose or vote on an ordinance that would establish what residents called for — a strong civilian review board with subpoena power — then-Mayor John DeStefano used an executive order to create a body of his own.

Yet the DeStefano civilian review board did not have independent investigation power — police officers investigated their peers. According to activists, the power to subpoena is especially critical to investigating police misconduct, as it allows boards to independently gather documents and compel testimony from witnesses — including police officers.

In 2013, in the city’s once-per-decade charter review, a referendum dissolved the DeStefano board and mandated the establishment of a more powerful replacement. In the five years since, that replacement has not come to fruition.

Tuesday’s hearing placed a proposal in front of committee members and the community.

The slew of testifiers during the hearing overwhelmingly advocated a single position. While they wanted a civilian review board, they described the proposed draft as inadequate, highlighting the lack of power to conduct independent investigations — whenever the topic came up, audience members raised signs that read “Subpoena Power.” With testifiers varying from residents who have experienced police brutality firsthand to Yale students affiliated with various social justice organizations, testimony reverberated with the sentiment that New Haven should not accept less than a full-bodied, powerful review board.

“I am against this proposal until it has teeth,” said Justin Elicker, who formerly served on the Board of Alders. “The City of New Haven overwhelmingly voted to create a CRB … subpoena power [also] actually supports the police in the long run.”

A common theme in the testimony was the refutation of previous claims that subpoena power is illegal under state law. Testifiers dispelled this idea, citing the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

While measures to ensure police accountability have sparked debate among officers nationwide, representatives from the New Haven Police Department echoed the crowd’s sentiment. Police Chief Anthony Campbell ’95 DIV ’09 stressed that establishing the civilian review board had to be done, but that it was equally important that it was done “right.”

“The way the document is written now [without subpoena power] — it would not work,” Campbell told the alders.

Campbell added that although the police did not want to influence exactly how the review board should look, the New Haven Police Department supported the community’s demands. He cited the opportunity to “lead the charge” in changing the narrative of distrust between civilians and police officers.

Campbell said that police brutality certainly exists, but that those who assume the job “for the right reasons” understand and support strong outside oversight.

Beyond the issue of strengthening the proposed board, residents also lamented the lack of a platform to engage with the community.

Organizers referred to an alternative resolution named after Jones, the young man gunned down in 1997, and questioned the lack of a regular forum to discuss plans and ideas.

“There needs to be some room for the community to engaged with you,” Kerry Ellington, a community organizer with People Against Police Brutality, told alders on the committees. “You do not represent [the police], you represent us.”

After three hours of testimony, the alders moved into considering the draft proposal and possible amendments.

Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94 raised an amendment in response to testifier’s main demand — her amendment gave the proposed board independent investigation powers, including subpoena power. During her testimony, she referred directly to the MALIK Jones All-Civilian Review Board Proposal, the alternative proposal cited by several groups during the testimony.

Reading aloud, Roth talked about the proposal that the civilian review board have the authority to investigate, to hold hearings and take testimonies under oath and to issue interrogatories, as well as to conduct interviews and obtain evidence — all in relation to any complaint of alleged police misconduct under investigation by the civilian review board. 

Brackeen then seconded the amendment brought up by Roth, while Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand followed by speaking out against it. Marchand said he did not favor introducing it “at this time” and encouraged other alders to vote against it.

Marchand added that there is a “journey” that everyone must take together to “grapple with these difficult issues,” but he that he thought the addition of subpoena power should only come after a lot more discussion.

Ultimately, only Brackeen and Roth voted for the amendment. All other members voted against it.

The amendment’s failure caused immediate uproar among the community members in the room, with shouts, audible gasps, table slams and cursing.

Brackeen was the first to speak after the vote.

“Before being alder, I was on [the other] side of the table discussing my experience here in New Haven of police brutality,” he said, motioning to the civilian seat.

“I know we want to wrap [this process] up,” Brackeen acknowledged.“But there are some glaring, obvious things that the community are asking for and we just really need to meet them at some point, somewhere.”

Ward 22 Alder Jeanette Morrison, who voted against the amendment, said that for the last five years, subpoena power has been the “one consistent thing” that the community asks for. “I say you know what, you want subpoena power? That comes from the state. Organize. Go to the state.”

Immediately, members of the audience called Morrison out. “That’s a lie,” one person yelled. Another shouted, “Talk to a lawyer. That’s not true,” before the panel’s chair banged the gavel.

When the chairperson called for order, a community member said “We want order too. We want you all to represent us.”

As the community’s voiced dissatisfaction grew louder, members of the community started to repeat the word “shame,” prompting some members of the panel to stand up from their seats. Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand, Ward 8 Alder Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker GRD ’18, Ward 13 Rosa Santana and Ward 12 Alder Gerald Antunes rose from their seats and took a short break before returning.

The other eight alders remained seated in silence.

The amended ordinance will go up for two sessions of review in front of the full board, where there is an opportunity for further amendments and a final vote.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu