Up until around two years ago, they still gathered every Monday at 6 p.m.-sometimes spontaneously-on Grand Avenue, the Fair Haven street where East Haven police officer Robert Flodquist shot and killed Malik Jones, who was unarmed, on the night of April 14, 1997.
“People just met there to remember what happened,” says Emma Jones, his mother.
What happened depends on who you ask. Malik, who was driving in East Haven that night, fled when Flodquist tried to pull him over for a traffic stop. Flodquist chased him into Fair Haven, and what happened between then and when Malik was fatally shot is where accounts differ. The East Haven Police Department’s claim was that its officer was justified in discharging his weapon because the vehicle began rolling backward toward him as he approached it, according to news coverage of the case. Jones and civil rights activists point to reports that Flodquist smashed Malik’s driver’s side door before shooting him, as well as the Department’s reported history of racial profiling blacks and Latinos.
Flodquist was never convicted but a jury held the Department liable for racial profiling and awarded Jones $2.5 million in punitive damages-an error that brought the case back to court because a municipality can only be liable for compensatory damages. Jones ended up with $900,000, but a Federal appeals panel reversed it. Her bid for U.S. Supreme Court review was denied last year.
“He was an unarmed African American male who was stopped by a policeman who was out of his jurisdiction,” Jones says. “It’s a nightmare that-18 years later-that man has not been prosecuted.”
She still dresses in all white-everyday-“in memory of Malik” and in “silent protest”.
But in 1997, her protest was anything but silent.
“I couldn’t work for a year,” Jones says. “I was spending my time looking at how to find some justice for Malik.”
The blue print for New Haven’s civilian review board was laid out in a 22-page document Jones co-authored with then-Alderman Anthony Dawson. It would have the power to issue subpoenas, suggest disciplinary action, conduct independent investigations, and impose time frames within which the New Haven Police Department had to look into misconduct allegations.
It was the product of a year spent researching the review boards in more than 100 municipalities throughout the country, Jones says.
“None of ‘em were working,” she says. “They failed because of the same things-they were run by the police officers. I wanted something that would be effective and have teeth.”
More than 10 years later, Barbara Fair was putting that to the test.
She would witness it regularly-police officers conducting cavity searches on the streets in broad daylight.
“We were walking by and I was like ‘how humiliating does that got to be?’” she says.
Then, in 2007, it happened to her nephew, Dramese Fair.
“I heard other guys saying ‘yeah, they do that all the time,’” Fair says. “To me, that wasn’t something you can just accept.”
Dramese filed a complaint with the Department’s Internal Affairs Division. When the investigation is completed is when the Board can exercise its only power: to recommend further review on the basis of any follow up questions it might have-a far cry from the more comprehensive scope of functions Jones envisioned.
“The review board was useless,” Fair says. “Recommendations? And they [the Police Department] don’t have to accept them? I guess they put something together to really appease the people.”
Barbara Carrol served on the Board for 9 years-during which she spent some time as its Chair. They would review between 6 and 12 closed cases per month, by her estimate. If there were questions, it was rare for the Department to not provide answers.
“If we wanted something additional written up, they had it in there,” Carrol says. “We had a very good working relationship with Internal Affairs.”
But when asked about Dramese’s complaint-which drew headlines when Fair and other community activists from the New Haven group My Brother’s Keeper organized rallies outside the police station following the Internal Affairs investigation-Carrol said she has little to no memory of it.
“You’re talking 7 years ago,” she says. “So I’m certainly not going to comment on something I really don’t remember.”
Fair doesn’t know the nature of any discussions that took place when Dramese’s case was passed from Internal Affairs to the Board for review either, but she credits the policy change-a requirement that officers obtain a warrant and only search suspects who have been hospitalized-to the post investigation pressure levied by members of the community.
We’re sitting at a table in the Fair Haven Library on October 10. A little more than a week before our meeting, Fair’s daughter, Holly Tucker, filed a complaint with Internal Affairs. She alleges that she was driving to class at Gateway Community College when Officer Jason Bandy stopped her vehicle outside the parking garage at Church and Crown. Tucker says that the two exchanged words, and that he tried to pull her locked driver’s side door open.
At a recent discussion on community policing held at Yale University, New Haven Police Chief Dean Esserman wouldn’t say much about the civilian review board issue beyond stating that “we have a very strong internal affairs division”.
For Fair and Tucker, at least, it has been a very fast one so far-Tucker made her complaint the day of the alleged incident and she was called down to police headquarters on Union Avenue that Saturday for a recorded interview.
This isn’t Fair’s first time walking someone through this process either. As an activist and community organizer, she has had many people confide in her for advice on how to handle a police-related concern or complaint over the years. She typically has the same advice that she has given to Holly: go through the investigation and don’t be intimidated. But for many, that can be easier said than done, Fair says.
“’One I make a complaint, I’m gonna end up getting harassed’-that’s the reaction [I get],” Fair says. “And can you blame ‘em? That’s been the history.”
Advocates of Jones’ proposal and Carroll will disagree on what powers the civilian review board should have had-Carroll thought that subpoena power, for instance, would have been too ambitious given the fact that it would require legislative change at the state level to give that to an independent body-but the former body Chair understands some of Fair’s concerns. She admits that she would have liked to see a provision mandating that a member of the review board be present during police interviews with those filing a complaint.
“I’ve gone with a number of people [to the review board] who have had complaints,” Fair says. “They didn’t want to go to the police department. Many times there was no one there to take you through the process.”
For Jones and the city residents that rallied around the Malik shooting, the process started with a two-day conference held by the Board of Alderman in 1998 to discuss the case and issues related to it. A year later, a referendum to bring the proposal to form a civilian review board to its Legislative Committee passed 4-1, but before they could act, then-Mayor John DeStefano did.
“He stopped the process right in its tracks,” Jones says. “I think he figured he had to do something or [elements of] my proposal would’ve stood.”
DeStefano says that he doesn’t know what he figured at the time he issued the 2001 executive order that established the current review board-a significantly watered down version of what Jones and Dawson dreamt up in the wake of Malik’s killing. That’s because he simply doesn’t remember much about the discussion at all, he said during a phone interview.
Jim Horan served as DeStefano’s Chief of Staff from 1998 to 2000. News coverage at the time of the executive order credited him as “the architect” of the plan that was passed before the Board of Aldermen could deliberate.
“It was basically an attempt to get back to community policing and build the ties between police and residents of New Haven, which had become a little fractured,” Horan said when reached over the phone.
Although he admits that “the civilian review board that was created did not have all the elements that Emma Jones and other members of the community desired”, Horan stressed the fact that Malik’s shooting was not at the hands of New Haven police, but an officer from East Haven.
“The city was seeking to be responsible but reflect what was happening in the city at that time,” Horan said.
Jones has noted that herself, but New Haven was only supposed to be the beginning. She knew that she wanted to eventually direct her efforts toward East Haven, but the time for that would come once the idea was tested in her hometown. Ultimately, the goal was for a state-wide civilian review board.
“We had support on the state level,” Jones says. “I think it would’ve happened, but…”
Connecticut Senator Martin Looney was among the state legislators who have spoken with Jones about the idea. While there are situations where one might come in handy, actually establishing such a body is complicated, he says.
“Civilian review is done normally at the municipal level because policing is decentralized,” Looney said over the phone. “And police have their own jurisdiction.”
But Malik was killed by an officer who chased him into a neighborhood outside of his department’s jurisdiction.
“There are times when jurisdictional lines are crossed and there needs to be someone other than municipal authorities,” Looney said. “I think it [a proposal for a statewide review board] would have significant merit, but might not succeed.”
He chalks it up to the state’s political culture.
“We don’t [even] have county government in Connecticut,” Looney said. “Anything that would be seen as removing jurisdiction from a municipality and investing it at the state level would be politically controversial.”
For now, the focus is back on New Haven, where residents have sent the message again through a charter revision referendum that was held last year. Voters want a civilian review board-this time by way of the Board of Aldermen’s legislative process and not a mayor’s executive order. A legislative and public safety joint committee is on it, with hearings and meetings yet to be scheduled, according to a source on the Board.
The committee doesn’t know how the process will play out or what specific powers the new Board will have, but Jones intends to ensure that elements of her blueprint are at the very least considered.
“I’d prefer that there be no board at all, than have this illusion of a fair process,” she says.