Lawsuit Against Police Chief Alleges Free Speech Violation

Fair lawsuit

A New Haven resident and activist has been banned from attending the New Haven Police Department’s weekly CompStat meetings, so she’s suing Chief Dean Esserman on the grounds of Constitutional rights violations.

New Haven Attorney Norm Pattis has filed the suit with the U.S. District Court of Connecticut on behalf of Barbara Fair, an outspoken activist against police brutality who was seen getting thrown out of a March 9 CompStat meeting in a video posted on The New Haven Independent website.

The suit alleges a violation of free speech rights and a lack of grounds for time, place, and manner restrictions, and requests an injunction against the banning of any individuals from CompStat meetings, which are open to the public.

Pattis did not respond to requests for comment.

Fair’s dispute with Esserman centers around the previous meeting, during which she made comments related to the controversy surrounding the St. Patrick’s Day arrest of a 15-year old city resident. During a cell phone video that prompted the Department to launch its own Internal Affairs investigation, an officer is seen bringing the girl to the ground using a technique that is known as a leg sweep.

Although the incident brought protests to police headquarters, the officer was exonerated by Internal Affairs-a decision that brought community activists and Department supporters to the front of City Hall for a heated exchange.

Due to comments she made at the March 2 meeting, Fair was asked to leave the March 9 CompStat session, which Esserman closed to the public after she refused, according to the lawsuit.

The suit alleges that derogatory comments were directed by Department supporters during a protest, and that Fair was looking to address that.

“I said I wondered how these officers can protect and serve a community they don’t like,” Fair said of her comments at the previous meeting. “Then I asked how many of these officers are here for a paycheck, and I guess he didn’t like that.”

Fair attempted to attend the March 16 Compstat meeting, only to be turned away in the Department Headquarters lobby, the suit alleges. That day, she brought State Senator Gary Holder Winfield and State Representative Robyn Proter  with her.

“Barbara Fair is an activist on issues being discussed at these meetings,” Winfield said outside the Department’s headquarters. “She could be a link between the community and the police, and we need to figure out why she’s being banned from these meetings.”

Esserman could not be reached for comment, but on March 16, Assistant Chief Luis Casanova said that the content of Fair’s comments were not the reason for her removal from the March 2 meeting, and that the public portion had been closed because Department personnel were discussing sensitive information related to a homicide.

But he did, however, described Fair’s comments as “disruptive”.

“These meetings are designed to improve what goes on in the community,” Casanova said. “These meetings are not designed to push your personal agenda.”

Fair disputes that characterization.

“I didn’t scream it. I didn’t shout it,” she said. “I just simply made an observation, and they couldn’t handle it. It was a comment for them to reflect, not get upset about.”

 

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