CLAIM: “State statute does not allow the Civilian Review Board to have subpoena powers.”
SOURCE: Ward 29 Alder Brian Wingate at the Joint Legislation/Public Safety Committee public hearing in the Board of Alders Chamber in New Haven City Hall on Tuesday, Nov. 13.
As the nation continues to reckon with violent, sometimes deadly clashes between police officers and civilians, New Haven has not been immune to the climate of tense police-civilian relations. Led by community organizers from People Against Police Brutality, New Haven citizens have doubled down on New Haven alders and Mayor Toni Harp’s administration to resurrect the New Haven Police Department Civilian Review Board — this time, with several key changes to the ordinance. One especially contentious issue: whether the board will have the right to subpoena.
Five years have passed since the NHPD Civilian Review Board last met. A committee of citizen representatives charged with investigating cases of officer misconduct and liaising with and developing trust between law enforcement agencies and the public, the oversight board was suspended in 2014 as the city reevaluated its effectiveness and overall mission. Now, alders have proposed a number of revisions. Most significantly, the Civilian Review Board would become a permanent part of the city’s government structure, operating independently from the existing Board of Police Commissioners, which many consider an extension of the police department.
But critics of the alders’ most recent proposal argue that in order to truly avoid a conflict of interest, the revamped board must be able to collect public data and summon witnesses. Subpoena power, advocates contend, is necessary for the board to conduct independent investigations of police misconduct complaints. Still, several alders — including Wingate — have adamantly refused the Civilian Review Board this power, citing the absence of a statute that definitively grants a civilian oversight committee the ability to subpoena.
Yet New Haven’s 1899 Special Act No. 467 seems to be just such a statute.
The act explicitly vests “[t]he presiding officers of the board of aldermen … of the several committees of said boards, and of the several boards of commissioners” with the power to issue subpoenas.
And the 1899 statute has been recited in the City Charter for many years. Most recently, the 2013 version of the city’s constitution restates the clause conferring subpoena power to the Board of Alders, its committees and its boards of commissioners. In a 2015 memo obtained by the News to Albert Lucas, director of legislative services for the Board of Alders, Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr. cited Article VII of the Charter as proof that a civilian oversight committee would count as one of these commissions under the Board of Alders. Like the Board of Alders itself, however, the committee would not have the power to enforce a subpoena; it would need a court’s authority to arrest unwilling witnesses, for example.
Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand GRD ’99 and a few others have maintained that state law is too ambiguous about whether the Civilian Review Board qualifies as a commission. Some have proposed a solution that secures subpoena power while circumventing the legal debate entirely: ensuring that an alder is always among the members of the board. Dan Barrett ’04, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, says that indecision over the legality of subpoena power is just an excuse for the alders to get away with a “decoy” civilian oversight committee.
Facing pressure from community members, the Board of Alders unanimously agreed to resurrect the oversight panel on Jan. 7. While the board’s language does not explicitly mention subpoena power, it cites the 1899 statute, thereby effectively allowing the oversight panel to issue subpoenas. How effective the Civilian Review Board will be in invoking and implementing subpoena power to hold local law enforcement accountable remains to be seen.