Yale Daily News

The New Haven Civilian Review Board discussed internal affairs, or IA, complaint reports and engagement with the Corporation Counsel Office in its monthly meeting Monday evening. 

The Civilian Review Board, or CRB, works to monitor and independently investigate any civilian complaints of police misconduct. The 12 person meeting aimed to address the New Haven Police Department’s most recent IA reports, touch base on board subcommittee case recommendations and work out board procedures. The board was formed in 2019 with the ability to review closed and current IA cases by subpoenaing witnesses and records. Lieutenant Manmeet Colón reported that the NHPD received 106 internal affairs complaint reports in 2021, an increase of 18 from 2020. The Use of Force Report of “hard hands,” which means the police officers use punches or kicks to subdue a suspect, hit its peak in the last four years with 170 cases. The NHPD has 115 firearm displays, 23 OC (oleoresin capsicum – or pepper spray) deployments, three canine deployments, zero baton strike and zero shooting. Taser usage represented 24 cases, the lowest among the last four years. 

“It’s a good sign that officers are relying on their tactics and they’re relying on their hands more so than just the gear on their belts,” said Colón during the meeting, “and it was a very busy, busy year as far as crime.” 

Questions raised about allegedly consensual encounters with officers

In the meeting, Colón, who is the NHPD officer in charge of IA, presented eight IA closed cases from 2021. Board members paused to raise questions regarding one incident in case 21C-080 that was deemed unfounded and closed at the end of December. 

According to the October IA report, Zaire Ward was parked in a vehicle outside his mother’s house with a friend when plainclothes detective Francisco Sánchez and his partner — unnamed in the report — stopped Ward to ask him questions about a shots fired incident that had occured on the same street 24 hours before. Colón said that, based on body-camera footage, Sánchez appeared to be “calm” while Ward was “argumentative and upset.”

After Ward dropped a hand between his seat and the center console, saying he had dropped a lighter, Sánchez and his partner shone flashlights into the car to inspect for a potential firearm. 

Colón reported that Ward then grew “agitated” by the flashlight inspection and asked twice if they wanted to search his vehicle. Sánchez then patted Ward down and searched the vehicle. No firearm was found. 

The complaint, which was filed by Ward’s mother, Virginia Henry, alleged that Sánchez had harassed her son by stopping him and that this was not the first time Sánchez had stopped and searched Ward. 

Colón noted that the department was aware that Ward had been “flashing” firearms in social media posts in the past. When asked by CRB Member Rick Crouse if the detective had known about those postings prior to speaking with Ward, Colón said the detective was not aware of the postings, but that “they’re very familiar with Mr. Ward.”

She said there are “three or four” reports of his involvement in gun violence, his friends’ involvement in gun violence and of firearms being posted on social media. 

Colón said that Ward had two prior gun arrests and was arrested for carrying a firearm without  a permit soon after the incident with Sánchez. In a post-arrest interview, Colón added, Ward admitted that when he saw plainclothes detectives canvassing the area the night of his encounter with Sánchez, he had passed off a gun to a friend. 

CRB Chair Samuel Ross-Lee asked if the detective stopped to speak with him specifically because they knew he had prior arrests. 

“This was a consensual encounter, so he was not detained at any point,” Colón responded. “The officers simply went up to him and were asking him questions about the shots fired incident.”

Colón added that the encounter with Ward was “consensual,” meaning Ward could have walked away from the conversation at any time. “Was he told that?” Ross-Lee asked. Colón again noted that Ward was not detained, put in handcuffs or asked to exit the vehicle. She said that though Ward might not have been aware he could have walked away at any time, Sánchez would only be in the wrong if he had implied that Ward could not leave. 

Other members also pressed Colón on Sánchez’s failure to communicate that Ward could have walked away at any point. 

“If two officers approached my vehicle, and they’re flashing flashlights into my vehicle, looking into my vehicle, they’re already searching my vehicle,” said CRB Member Jewu Richardson.

Richardson said he thought Ward might have felt compelled to allow officers to search the vehicle at that point. Colón responded by insisting a flashlight shine inside the vehicle was not a search. 

Richardson said he understood that from a law enforcement perspective the flashlight did not constitute a search and that Ward was technically allowed to walk away at any time. Still though, Richardson said he felt there was a “disconnect” with the community in terms of understanding how some civilians might interpret or react in the situation. 

“I feel like people respond in a certain way because they don’t know nothing else,” Richardson continued. “I mean, if two cops are approaching you and they’re saying hey, flashing flashlights in your car, asking certain questions, you’re going to feel like you have to be obedient or at least comply with the officer, because you don’t want any problems.”

Ross-Lee agreed with Richardson, saying that people who don’t know they can walk away from a consensual encounter with an officer asking questions might feel “compelled” to offer information they aren’t obligated to disclose. 

Ross-Lee said he understood that in “high-impact situations” it might be beneficial for detectives to not emphasize that people are not required to speak with them. “But in terms of building a relationship with the community, it might be better in a low-impact situation to say that even if you don’t have to.”

Colón said she understood the members’ concerns, and that “I’m sure if [Ward] had asked if he could leave the detectives would have told them that he could but I understand exactly what your sentiments are.”

CRB seeks more engagement with corporation counsel office

Member Stephen Hamm made a motion regarding the Civilian Review Board’s engagement with the Corporation Counsel Patricia King and the deputy Corporation Counsel Catherine LaMarr. Corporation Counsel serves as the chief legal advisor and attorney for the city. 

“It’s making sure we understand what the rules are,” said Hamm, “and making sure that we comply with them, and that we have procedures to comply with [them].” 

Hamm proposed that CRB should work with the Corporation Counsel Office on critical matters: First, the CRB asks to have access to all internal affairs misconduct cases, rather than just complaints filed by civilians. CRB also wants to have access to evidence in ongoing internal affairs cases before they are closed. 

Hamm emphasized his wishes to work closely with King, LaMarr and New Haven Police Department to clarify matters of law, develop procedures governing third parties that are appointed to investigate cases and recommend changes in the union contract that would improve CRB’s ability to provide oversight and recommendations. 

Hamm said that the CRB is committed to transparency and urged to follow the state Freedom of Information Act and Open Meeting Law. The CRB also wants to establish a procedure for sharing information with the press for alerting them when new information is available. 

Because of COVID-19 precautions,, the Civilian Review Board meeting in February will take place on Zoom. 

Sophie Sonnenfeld is Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. She previously served as City Editor and covered cops and courts as a beat reporter. She is a junior in Branford College double majoring in political science and anthropology.