Angela Xiao

After decades of demands from New Haven community members and months of contentious debate, the Board of Alders unanimously passed a previously hotly contested resolution establishing a civilian review board — a body to investigate and address police brutality and issues of accountability — in New Haven on Jan. 7.

In the first Board of Alders meeting of the new calendar year, the Alders passed a resolution that, since its initial introduction in November, has engulfed activists, community members and students alike. The debate has been focused on the powers such a review board ought to have, as much of the contention surrounded the power to subpoena witnesses. 26 Alders were present for last Monday’s vote, and all cast their ballots in favor of the ordinance after a series of speeches acknowledging longstanding community concerns.

“New Haven needs a civilian review board that is transparent, fair and, most importantly, independent from the police department,” Ward 9 Alder Charles Decker GRD ’19 said in introducing the amendments to the earlier form of the ordinance and opening last Monday’s discussion on the ordinance. “This system for independent investigations and/or reporting would provide unprecedented transparency and accountability in the police department.”

The alders unanimously approved the ordinance, which does not explicitly grant subpoena power. But in interviews with the News following the meeting, alders noted that the review board does have subpoena power, which they said is vested in state law.

Previously, alders were split over whether a city-level review board with subpoena power would violate state law, since the power to subpoena is vested in state-level government in Connecticut. Earlier this year, alders, including Ward 22 Alder and President Pro Tempore Jeanette Morrison, questioned the legitimacy of a 2015 memo by city Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr. LAW ’66. The memo affirmed activists and legal advocates’ argument that the city of New Haven has subpoena power grandfathered into the city’s legislature — and any review board it forms — by an 1899 Special Act of the state legislature.

But earlier in the day on Jan. 7, Mayor Toni Harp said on WNHH’s “Mayor Monday” program that, based on her discussions with Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers, Walker-Myers and the Board would “assume that the Corporation Counsel is right in this instance — that they already have [subpoena power]” and pass a final ordinance under that assumption. On the program, Harp also promised to sign whatever version of the ordinance the Board passes.

Since the 1990s, local activists have advocated for the establishment of a review board in the Elm City. Though New Haven overwhelmingly voted in favor of establishing such a Civilian Review Board in a 2013 referendum, debate over the logistics of creating such a body dragged on for more than half a decade.

The specific ordinance approved on Jan. 7 initially drew ire when it came before the Joint Legislation and Public Safety Committee on Nov. 13. During more than three hours of highly emotional community testimony, activists uniformly deemed the proposed review board as “toothless” because of its lack of independent investigatory power.

At the committee level, alders voted to advance the resolution to the full board despite the public’s protest against the proposed Review Board’s lack of subpoena power. Still, the committee vote was not unanimous, as some alders, including Ward 7 Alder Abby Roth ’90 LAW ’94 challenged why the city would create a review board without independent investigatory power, contrary to the demands of community members.

In interviews with the News at the time, several alders responded to community demands for an amendment to the ordinance granting the Review Board subpoena power by calling into question the legality of such a move in the first episode of a monthslong debate. The vote in the full Board of Alders meeting on the ordinance was delayed several times as discussions, press conferences and meetings — as well as further amendment proposals — related to the ordinance continued.

Despite an acknowledgement from several Alders that the review board will have subpoena power, activists still gathered on the steps of City Hall two hours prior to the Board of Alders meeting to push for another delay in the vote.

Activist Kerry Ellington called on the Board to delay the vote and demanded that it “affirm this language [of subpoena power] in the ordinance.”

“We cannot rely on unofficial account and implied powers when it comes to such a key aspect of the Civilian Review Board,” Ellington said. “Subpoena must be written into the ordinance.”

Ellington brought up concerns about the inadequacy of the staffing mechanism laid out in the proposal, and called for review board members to be drawn from representative neighborhood-based organizations, rather than selected based on the recommendations of Community Management Teams. She argued that many members of Community Management Teams have complex and disqualifying connections to alders, police and neighborhood watch organizations.

Lastly, she cited language directly written in the ordinance’s preamble, which she called “dangerously vague, unnecessary and legally incorrect”: “WHEREAS, it is the unique power and privilege of police officers acting within the scope and course of their employment in these departments to use force, even deadly force, in making arrests.”

But in spite of the protests, the vote proceeded as scheduled. In speeches on the agenda item, which began 15 minutes into last Monday’s meeting, alders explained various aspects of the amended resolution — including processes of investigation as well as nominating procedures. Alders justified their support of the ordinance and acknowledged the concerns of activists, with several explicitly referencing the issue of subpoena power.

Roth, who voted against the resolution at the committee level, attributed her change of heart to amendments that she believed made the version at hand substantially different from the version she rejected earlier. She acknowledged that, while the current version does not directly use the words “subpoena power,” the Special Act means that, “practically and legally, [the CRB] does contain that [subpoena] power.”

Contrary to arguments brought forward by Ellington, Ward 6 Alder Dolores Colón ’91 said that she was pleased that the membership of the board will come from Management Team meetings.

“That is a good way to ensure that we have a diverse representation of the population of our city. It’s only fair,” Colón said.

Ward 22 Alder Morrison expressed her enthusiastic support for the legislation, explaining her personal connection to the ordinance as a mother of “a black young man” who often gets profiled by police officers. Morrison said that she is “ecstatic” that the Board has come together to push to ensure that “all the sons, every son, has a fair chance.”

When the time for the actual vote came, it was one “yes” after another as all 26 present Alders voted in favor. The ordinance establishing a review board, decades in the making, took less than half an hour to get through the Board of Alders’ second reading and final vote.

Sammy Westfall | sammy.westfall@yale.edu

Angela Xiao | angela.xiao@yale.edu