Finizio says police panel wrong to close reviews

By Sasha Goldstein

Publication: The Day

Published December 06. 2012 4:00AM
New London mayor says action defies spirit of force's community relations committee

New London - Representatives of the mayor and chief of police will not take part in closed-door Police Community Relations Committee reviews of police investigations of civilian complaints, the mayor said Wednesday.

A committee vote to handle such reviews in executive session came in October, nearly three years after the panel was told by city attorney Brian Estep that such sessions were in violation of state Freedom of Information laws. Since that March 2010 decision, all discussions had been open to the public.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said Wednesday that he doesn't "ascribe any nefarious motives to this," but the committee "made an error." He will request that representatives from his office and from the police chief's office, who routinely attend the meetings, do not sit in on the executive sessions because he disagrees with the committee's decision.

The nine-member committee is appointed by the City Council, Finizio said, putting the group outside his regulatory authority.

City Council President Michael Passero could not be reached to comment Wednesday night.

"If I did, my instruction would be to reverse this policy immediately," Finizio said. "It goes against the very spirit of the existence of this board and counter to the advice of the city law department."

Committee Chairman Wayne Vendetto said the panel will schedule a committee meeting - either this month or next - to discuss the change with city officials. The committee then would vote on the issue at a regularly scheduled meeting.

"We need to get the powers that be together and sit down and talk about it," he said. "It's the only way we're going to solve problems."

The committee is charge with monitoring police department investigations of civilian complaints. The head of the City Council's Public Safety Committee - Councilor John Maynard was appointed to that role earlier this week - generally attends.

From its 1988 beginning until the March 2010 change, Vendetto, a founding member of the group, said the panel's discussions of such complaints were held behind closed doors, with committee votes held in public session. Vendetto said that after spending the last year discussing a change back to the old policy, the panel voted in October to do so.

Allowed to sit in on such executive sessions are the complainant, his or her attorney, the police chief or a representative, the mayor or his representative, the involved police officer and a union representative.

Police union president and city police officer Todd Lynch said he supports the committee's decision, and added that such the matters should be discussed in private.

"Why is it only the city police department that's held in the open?" he said. "Why are we the only one with an open forum for (the public) to hear complaints? I understand (the complaint and investigation) is a public document, that they can get it. But it's different to hold a forum and read it to the public."

Clifton Leonhardt, chief counsel at the state Freedom of Information Commission, said he was uncertain whether such discussions met the criteria for executive session.

"It's always unfortunate to see a retrenchment of open meetings, a backward movement of a pre-existing policy of open meeting," he said Wednesday. "The whole purpose of the Police Community Relations Committee is undermined if their deliberations are not in public."

The state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union released a report Tuesday detailing the civilian complaint processes in each city. David McGuire, an ACLU staff attorney who oversaw the study, said New London achieved high marks on ease of access to making a civilian complaint. But, he said, the study didn't examine what happened once a complaint was made.

"These kind of bodies are important, and transparency is important on every level," McGuire said Wednesday of the PCRC. "That's the only way the public will feel they're getting a fair shake. Everything hinges on trust. When government is secretive, that erodes the trust."

Vendetto said he hopes the upcoming committee meeting will clear up any concerns about the change.

"I'm not trying to push it out the window, we just want to do the job we should be doing," he said.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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