It needs to be made up entirely of civilians, it needs to be an independent body capable of conducting its own investigations, and-perhaps most emphasized of all-it needs the power to issue and enforce subpoenas.
That was the consensus among the at least 50 or so New Haven residents who filled Aldermanic Chambers at New Haven City Hall last night to tell the Board of Alders Joint Public Safety and Legislative Committee how they would like the city’s civilian review board-currently the product of a 2001 John DeStefano Executive Order-to be restructured.
The Joint Committee fielded close to three hours of testimony, and that’s only the beginning-unanswered questions were raised, research has to be done in order to establish what is feasible from a legal standpoint, and there will be at least one more public meeting before the body drafts a tentative ordinance to be deliberated on. Once enacted, implementation is up to the Mayor.
“What this is is the start of a conversation,” said Joint Committee Chair Jessica Holmes. “It’s an opportunity to ask questions and hear from the public.”
It’s a conversation that many might say started long before the results of last year’s charter revision referendum prompted the Board of Alders to go back to the table and redesign the structure of the city’s civilian review board. In 1997, New Haven resident Emma Jones was doing exactly what the Joint Committee Members say the plan to do: examining review boards in municipalities throughout the country in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
It was the shooting death of her son, Malik, at the hands of an East Haven police officer that pushed her and local activists to spearhead a campaign for an all civilian review board. With the help of then-Alder Anthony Dawson, she would even draft the tentative ordinance.
“If you can search any place in the country and find anything that is better than what we proposed, it would behoove you to pass it,” Jones told the Joint Committee during her testimony.
In many ways, the residents’ demands-independence from the city and police department, investigative powers, and the ability to subpoena-reflect Jones’ envisioned Board. She also requested that the Board be allowed to impose time frames for within which investigations had to be completed, as well as sanctions on officers found to be guilty of abuse or other misconduct.
“I don’t know why we would do anything less,” said Kerry Ellington, another New Haven resident who gave sat next to Jones at the Joint Committee table to give her testimony.
But in 2001, the city did. A referendum had brought Jones’ proposal to the Board of Alders for deliberation, but then-Mayor DeStefano passed-by executive order-his own blue print for a civilian review board. That’s the one Barbara Carroll served on for 9 years, and this is how she says it works:
Complaints are made to the New Haven Police Departments Internal Affairs Division. They investigate, and the cases are considered “closed”. Only then do members of the review board read through the paperwork to determine whether or not there are any unanswered questions.
Carroll says that in the 9 years she served, she can only remember the Board calling an officer to one of its meetings on two occasions-both of which they complied.
Right now, it’s not doing any of that. The Board has not met since August because it does not have a coordinator-a staff position that used to be full-time but was reduced to less than 20 hours per week. The Board was ordered by the Chief Administrative Officer Mike Carter to hold off on its usual work until the vacancy is filled.
“People in this galley have sent cases down to Internal Affairs, and guess what, nobody’s reading ’em,” said Review Board Member George Carter. “I got an issue with that.”
Barbara Fair, a city resident and activist has had an issue with the scope of the Review Board since its inception. Both she and Jones have criticized what they consider a lack of power to hold police accountable.
“I’d hate to see another civilian review board put together that really can’t do a damn thing,” Fair said during the meeting.
Fair’s daughter, Holly Tucker, was with her during her testimony. Months ago she filed a complaint with Internal Affairs over an incident that she says involved a police officer attempting to open her car door during a verbal altercation in a parking garage.
“Still, I’ve heard nothing,” Tucker said. “Where do you go after that?”
If Malik’s killing provided residents with the impetus to pursue Jones’ vision, recent events have served as reminders. Mentions of Ferguson, the death of Mike Garner, and others filled the discussion.
“We haven’t seen a lot of change from Selma to Ferguson,” said Norman Clement, a city resident and activist with the local ANSWER Coalition. “We are in a new civil rights effort in our country. We’re in a unique position here in New Haven to be able to affect some kind of change that addresses police brutality and racial profiling.”
And then there are the incidents that, for many of the residents in attendance, have hit even closer to home. Jewu Richardson’s case is just one of them. This past summer he accepted a plea bargain that ended a lengthy saga wherein which he says he was subject to blackmail, harassment, and brutality at the hands of officers of the New Haven Police Department. Allegations against him were that he assaulted an officer on the night he was shot through the windshield of his car after a chase that started in the Hill neighborhood.
He was tried, and-after the jury determined it could not convict him-almost put on trial again. The barring of key evidence-the fact that police dispatchers called the officer off the pursuit-prompted him to take the plea in order to avoid a potential sentence of more than 30 years.
But last night he was among those who gave testimony, citing his own experience filing complaint after complaint with Internal Affairs as an indictment on what he sees as a system that demands closer scrutiny.
“The components of [Jones’ proposal] will add that, so the community can gain that trust thaty they have somewhere to go where they can get justice,” Richardson said. “I’m sad that it had to come to this, that people had to die for us to consider this.”
The most-debated component of Jones’ proposal is subpoena power. That’s something the Board in its current state does not have. But even if it did, it wouldn’t be of much use, says New Haven Legal Adviser John Rose Jr.
“On its best day, a civilian review board only has the power to subpoena, but it doesn’t have the power to compel,” Rose Jr. said.
In other words, it’s not enforceable.
“In my mind, unenforceable subpoena power is not subpoena power,” Holmes said.
If an officer refused to appear after a board issues the order, it would be up to the courts to make the call, Rose Jr. said. But that’s not an anomaly, says Megan Wachspress, a third year law student at Yale.
“Subpoenas are not self-executing as a rule, so while it’s certainly an obstacle, I think it’s misleading to characterize it as less than typical subpoena power,” Wachspress said.
So the Joint Committee wants to know how-if possible-a Review Board can obtain subpoena power.
“A municipality, by nature, is a creation of the state,” Rose Jr. said. “Municipalities have no power except what the state gives it.”
But an 1899 statute gave municipal Boards of Alders, their committees, and Directors of Public Works subpoena power-although it is, again, unenforceable-according to Rose Jr.
So could any of those entities grant that to a civilian review board?
“I know there are legal complications,” said Chris Garaffa, a city resident and ANSWER Coalition activist. “But complicated isn’t an excuse and we’re not going to take it for an answer.”
Meanwhile, the Alders on the Joint Committee are looking ahead to March, when Mayor Toni Harp will present her budget proposal for the next fiscal year.
“It seems like a Hail Mary to think we could have this figured out to reflect new positions, but to be effective, you’re going to need staff,” said Joint Committee Member Adam Marchant. “You’re going to need a coordinator. I understand that the need is urgent, but if we rush this, it won’t work.”