On the steps of City Hall, a Friday press conference demanding police accountability soured after authorities initially barred activists from entering the building, complicating their attempts to communicate their demands to city officials.
The press conference was planned in response to a Nov. 13 Board of Alders Joint Legislation/Public Safety Committee vote to advance a resolution establishing a Civilian Review Board — a body to investigate and check police brutality and violence. The move was highly unpopular with meeting attendees, who argued that the resolution — in its current form — is toothless without independent investigatory power. Groups including People Against Police Brutality and several Yale-affiliated social justice organizations came together Friday afternoon to call on city officials to strengthen the powers of any proposed Civilian Review Board.
But when the group tried to enter the building just before 5 p.m. on Friday to deliver a letter to Mayor Toni Harp’s office calling for a delay to the vote on the current proposal, New Haven police officers blocked off the entrance, transforming the press conference into a heated standoff. After the group was eventually allowed to enter the building 40 minutes later, activists were met by resistance from Harp’s staffers. Eventually, Harp’s Chief of Staff Tomas Reyes and her legislative liaison Esther Armmand promised a Monday afternoon meeting — that meeting will take place just hours before the full Board of Alders is set to meet and vote on the resolution.
“We are hoping that the Mayor makes a public call to advocate that the Board maybe think further on the issue of the Civilian Review Board and does everything in her power to negotiate a police union contract that empowers the Civilian Review Board,” Kerry Ellington, an activist with People Against Police Brutality who was one of Friday’s organizers and the primary point person for Monday’s meeting, told the News. “We’re hoping that people wake up to the realities of what marginalized communities are dealing with on a daily basis.”
The press conference began by reiterating long-standing demands from the activist community. Residents of New Haven have fought for a Civilian Review Board for more than two decades, which began with a proposal for an ordinance in 1995. Five years ago, in a referendum, the city voted overwhelmingly in favor of requiring the establishment of such a board. But efforts have stalled, and activists have long argued that anything without investigatory power — specifically the power to subpoena, or demand documents and compel testimony from witnesses — would create a useless body incapable of enforcing accountability or enacting actual change in the community.
The efforts to embed New Haven’s Civilian Review Board with subpoena power has been a source of legal misinformation during the debate. Some Alders have stated that the city does not have the power to give the Civilian Review Board the power to subpoena. But in the hearing, testifiers disputed this claim. On Friday, after Ellington read the letter addressed to Harp to the crowd, Dan Barrett — legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut — dispelled the myth again and affirmed that a Review Board with subpoena power would be within the legal limits in New Haven.
Most Connecticut municipalities, Barrett explained, do not have subpoena power. But New Haven is an exception, thanks to a grandfathering action of the Connecticut State Legislature in 1899 that gave the Elm City independent investigatory power — manifested in the city’s legislative branch, the Board of Alders. As such, the Board of Alders does have the legal authority to create a Review Board with subpoena power. As this is not the case in most Connecticut municipalities, Barrett told the crowd, New Haven is the optimal place to push for a powerful Civilian Review Board.
“New Haven is so close,” Barrett told the crowd. “When we talk about tearing down white supremacy, when we talk about ending subjugation and brutality … [New Haven is close to] having something that is leading the nation.”
According to speakers at the rally, the civilian review board also faces one more adversary — the city’s police unions. As budget negotiations have grown increasingly tense in the wake of financial pressures, New Haven — whose politics have long been controlled by the city’s many collective bargaining groups — must strike deals with the police union.
As community members prepared to enter the building to deliver Harp a letter, they packed up signs and banners so that they would be allowed in. However, in the commotion, a pair of New Haven police officers used their officer bicycles to blockade the entrance to the building.
Now without any signage, the activists erupted in disbelief, requesting the officers to allow them to enter. Several protesters pointed out the irony of the event’s purpose of asking for police accountability and proper use of police force.
The order to block the building came from New Haven Police Department Sergeant Brendan Borer, who arrived after activists protested and asked the officers to let them in. Protesters argued with Borer and questioned the order to close the building entrance until a side door opened and the crowd streamed in and up the stairs to the lobby outside of Harp’s office.
NHPD Media Liaison David Hartman could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Activists waged a standoff in the lobby as groups sat down on the floor; spoke with her representatives to air grievances; and demanded a meeting after they were informed that the mayor was absent from City Hall.
Mayoral spokesperson Laurence Grotheer and Armmand stressed that the mayor had no direct impact on the resolution, since it was in the Board of Alders — the city’s legislative arm — and independent from the office of the executive.
Asked what the mayor’s influence on a legislative agenda item might be, Armmand told the News, “Literally none,” and when further prompted said that Harp’s influence mattered only “to the extent that the Board members, individually or collectively, will listen to her opinion.”
Eventually, the mayor’s chief of staff accepted the activists’ letter and promised to request a meeting — he returned later with a meeting set for Monday at 2:30 p.m. with five representatives from the group. The Board of Alders is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m.
In response, community members hugged, cheered and chanted.
“I came. I saw a large crowd of people. I saw that they couldn’t get in. I saw the bike. I was like, ‘We should be able to get in and have this conversation about the Civilian Review Board,’” said Justin Farmer, a representative of Hamden’s town council. He said that there is no reason that officers should be blocking the door, especially when the building’s open until 6 p.m. and people were here before 5 p.m. He said that with 50, 60 people waiting outsider that share concerns, it’s a problem that they could only get inside after an hour.
Saying that he is a “pessimistic optimist,” Farmer said “a half an hour meeting, I don’t think we can cover a lot. Just the fact that the police were blocking the door. Whose permission was that? … Why did it take so long for us to get into the door? That might take us a half an hour alone.”
While Eli Sabin ’22 said he is glad that the mayor’s office granted a Monday meeting, he wants an explanation from the mayor’s office and the NHPD as to why the police officers were given orders by a sergeant to block a public building.
With five police officers silently standing face forward in a line in front of the mayor’s office watching the protestors, the community members walked down the City Hall staircase, singing.
“Which side are you on, my people? Which side are you on? Malik Jones was a freedom fighter, he taught us how to fight. So we go’n’ fight all day and night until we get it right,” they sang.
Harp was first elected mayor in 2013.
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