Following a decades-long push from local activists, the Board of Alders unanimously passed a previously contested resolution in favor of the Civilian Review Board — a body to investigate and address police brutality and issues of accountability — on Jan. 7, 2019.
The push for an investigative body began in the 1990s and earned overwhelming public support in a 2013 referendum. But over the next six years, officials and organizers struggled to agree on an appropriate set of powers for the board. In the months leading up to the January vote, public debate focused on whether or not the body would have subpoena power. Ultimately — over the objections of local organizers, who rallied to delay the vote — the Board passed an ordinance that did not explicitly grant this power. Still, over a year later, the Elm City has only filled half of the seats — the nomination process has stalled for months and has been met with pushback from community activists.
“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 January 2019, speaking in favor of the ordinance. “This system for independent investigations and/or reporting would provide unprecedented transparency and accountability in the police department.”
Ahead of the vote, officials maintained that subpoena power was implicit in the ordinance. In a morning radio appearance on Jan. 7, then-Mayor Toni Harp referred to a 2015 memo to explain that the city of New Haven — and any review board it forms — has subpoena power under the 1899 Special Act of the state legislature. The alders, she continued, would pass a final ordinance under that assumption, and she would sign whatever version that was. In interviews with the News after the vote, several alders confirmed that subpoena power is vested in state law.
Still, local activists wanted this power in writing.
“We cannot rely on unofficial accounts and implied powers when it comes to such a key aspect of the Civilian Review Board,” People Against Police Brutality organizer Kerry Ellington told the crowd. “Subpoena must be written into the ordinance.”
But even with last January’s vote, the CRB formation process is far from over — the Elm City has only confirmed seven appointments for the 13 to 15 person board.
Per the ordinance, the board will comprise 10 members from each of the 10 police districts in New Haven, one member from the Board of Alders and at least two members from the community at large. The mayor nominates all but three members of the body, with the exceptions of the aldermanic representative — appointed by the board president — and the two alder-appointed at-large members. Police officers and elected officials, other than the aldermanic representative, are barred from serving on the body. All CRB members must also be Elm City residents.
In the months after the CRB ordinance passed, the city’s 12 community management teams — neighborhood teams formed to exchange information and discuss local issues — vetted prospective candidates and sent a list of names to the mayor’s office. Each candidate was then interviewed by Harp’s liaison to the Board of Alders, Esther Armmand, according to then-Mayoral Spokesman Laurence Grotheer.
But community members expressed concerns about this staffing mechanism. Ellington 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.
In August 2019, Harp nominated 11 candidates for consideration by the Board of Alders. Of the group, six earned unanimous approval, four failed unanimously and one — former West Haven police officer Bob Proto — earned a single favorable vote.
But one of Harp’s nominees — originally withdrawn from consideration after failing to earn any support — got a second chance. Alders originally opposed journalist and filmmaker Steve Hamm in response to criticisms from community activists, including Ellington. Activists denounced Hamm’s “centrism” and what they viewed as his lack of understanding of structural racism during his July hearing. But in November, 22 out of 23 legislators reversed Hamm’s rejection, securing his spot on the board. Ward 25 Alder Adam Marchand casted the lone dissenting vote.
Hamm is the seventh mayoral appointee to be confirmed.
Zaporah Price| firstname.lastname@example.org