Review Boards in Review: Police Accountability from New Haven to Newark

City residents spoke out in favor of a review board with both subpoena and investigative powers at a public hearing in January.

City residents spoke out in favor of a review board with both subpoena and investigative powers at a public hearing in January.

If New Haven establishes what local activists and other residents consider a blueprint for a model civilian review board-complete with independent investigative and subpoena powers-it will probably look at least somewhat similar to the one that moves closer and closer to becoming a reality in Newark.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s executive order-issued in the wake of a federal racial profiling and police brutality report that prompted the Department of Justice (DOJ) to make plans to monitor the Newark Police Department-is past a 30 day public input period. If it passes in its current form, the review board will have the ability to conduct its own investigations regarding police-related complaints and subpoena-yes, subpoena-individuals for testimony.

In New Haven, the latter has been the most greatly disputed demand. It was a core proposal after Malik Jones was shot and killed by an East Haven Police officer in Fair Haven in 1997-the incident that prompted the call for a mechanism for increased police accountability-and it became the focal point of a discussion between city residents and staff when the Board of Alders joint public safety and legislative committee met at the end of January.

New Haven Corporation of Counsel John Rose is skeptical. Even with that charge, a review board cannot actually make someone testify, he said.

“The right to issue a subpoena is only as good as the right to enforce a subpoena,” Rose said.

True, but that’s not inconsistent with any other entity issuing nonjudicial-or nonbinding-subpoena. It becomes judicial when-as the name implies-the courts get involved in compelling an individual to cooperate.

Alicia Nicole Harris, a third year student at the Yale University School of Law, puts it this way:

“Subpoenas are not self-executing as a rule,” Harris said during her testimony. “While it’s an obstacle, I think it’s misleading to characterize it as less than a typical subpoena power.”

Then there’s Newark. Assuming its review board is established with that function intact, it won’t be the first. The New York City Civilian Review Board can also issue-although again, not enforce without a court order-subpoenas, but they don’t use that power on members of the NYPD.

That’s because the Department’s own patrol guide mandates that officers cooperate with review board investigations and appear at meetings when asked to, says Linda Sachs, the review board’s spokesperson.

So New York City’s body, according to Sachs, reserves that function to obtain documents from fire, EMT, and medical personnel, as well as private institutions such as bans, which might provide evidence such as video surveillance footage-all of which would help in exercising another ability New Haven residents want their review board to include: the power to hold independent investigations.

Newark’s review board proposal has that covered as well. What People’s Organization for Progress Chair Larry Hamm is concerned about is the finances.

The proposed review board model-consisting of a mayor-appointed Inspector General, three Municipal Council members, and representatives from organizations such as Hamm’s own People’s Organization for Progress and the local NAACP chapter-has been considered a solid skeleton by its advocates, but where is the lifeblood going to come from?

“The city is already cash-strapped,” Hamm said. “I have not heard of any new appropriations for the civilian review board.”

Being “cash strapped” seems to have become the norm in budget discussions in municipalities across the country, with Alders in New Haven less than optimistic about the chances of any review board-related initiatives receiving funding in this cycle.

Newark, however, is under even more pressure to deliver on the issue of police accountability. While in New Haven it was Malik Jones-among others-Newark’s own history is filled with controversial cases such as the killings of Strawberry Daniels, and Warren Lee-who Hamm refers to as “Newark’s Eric Garner”-among others.

So local activists have been pushing for enhanced police oversight long before Baraka issued his executive order to establish the review board.

“We’ve had police brutality in this town for 50 years, and people have been protesting for years,” Hamm said.

The DOJ has what is called a consent decree-meaning that they will be monitoring the Department’s reform effort.

“The DOJ makes the mandate for the consent decree, but they don’t provide the funding,” Hamm said over the phone. “The fight for change is one thing, but to implement it is another.”

To activists in New Haven, their city’s own implementation of change looked a lot less attractive the first time around. While independent investigations and subpoena power were cornerstones of Emma Jones’ review board proposal, a 2001 executive order by then-Mayor John Stefano-issued before the Board of Alders could consider how to craft such a body in the wake of a referendum in which residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of one-only provided allowed for the review of closed Internal Affairs investigations.

“The devil is in the details,” Hamm said. “It’s how it is implemented. I don’t think anywhere has the ideal review board-different places have different pieces of what you want in a review board.”

For Newark, the model city wasn’t too far away, Hamm said. New York City established its review board in 1966.

“When people heard about New York, they wanted the same thing,” Hamm said.

After Strawberry Daniels was killed sometime in the 1990’s, there was a renewed push that was ultimately unsuccessful.

“There was a push back,” Hamm said. “And keep in mind, at that time there was no DOJ takeover.”

New Haven’s second push came in the form of 2013’s charter revision referendum, so community activists have come back for the independent investigation and subpoena powers-among other proposals. They also want to put the “civilian” in civilian review board-the request is that nobody currently or formerly affiliated with The New Haven Police Department be appointed to serve.

In Newark, the exception to that rule will be the Inspector General.

“It hasn’t raised a red flag with the majority of the groups [working on the issue],” Hamm said. “I personally have some concerns about that, but I’m not sure that that’s going to be a deal breaker for us. The majority of the members will be non-law enforcement people. They can still outvote the inspector general.”

Hamm thinks that Newark has “85 percent of what people want” in Baraka’s proposal. The other 15 percent?

“I think where the contention is, is around the issue of disciplining police,” he said.

Jones’ own blueprint for New Haven called for the right to suggest sanctions in cases where an officer is found guilty of misconduct. In Newark, the Board will work with the police department to establish a “matrix” of disciplinary measures.

“The matrix is essentially guidelines,” Hamm said. “So that, in a way, makes it different than most review boards.”

 

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