New London needs to replace weak, dysfunctional police committee

New London needs a commission, independent of the City Council and mayor’s office, to serve as a conduit between the citizens and their police. Such a commission could advocate for the department’s needs, offer constructive criticism when it sees problems with police performance, serve as a watchdog to make sure citizen complaints are fairly evaluated, and undertake steps to foster better police-community relations.

Whether that group is a formal police commission or some variant can be left to future debate and discussion. What New London has now, however — the Police Community Relations Committee — is a mess.

We do not mean this as a criticism of those who volunteer to serve on the PCRC. Rather, the problems are the result of a lack of vision about what the PCRC is supposed to be and an absence of direction about what it is supposed to accomplish.

The city should scrap the PCRC, but only when something better is put in place to replace it.

PCRC traces its origins to 1976, when the city agreed to a stipulated consent decree issued by the U.S. District Court of Connecticut in a lawsuit brought by a Hispanic citizen. The lawsuit alleged discriminatory actions by New London police and the lack of any formal process for lodging a citizen’s complaint.

The decree required the city to make forms available for the filing of complaints against police and create a formal process to address them. While the order did not reference the creation of a Police Community Relations Committee, the City Council created it in the aftermath of the lawsuit “to foster better understanding between citizens and police officers.”

It never worked as intended. For years, PCRC’s primary function was reviewing the results of internal investigations of complaints against officers. In violation of Freedom of Information rules, it conducted these meetings in closed session, the process a favorable rubber stamp of the police investigations. Its closed-door conduct did nothing to encourage community confidence in its department.

In recent years, the committee has emerged from the secret meetings, following the law, though there have been numerous attempts to backslide and cover up information. This openness has only made the PCRC’s lack of any authority more apparent. Even if it finds an internal review of a citizen complaint lacking, it has no power to challenge the findings or order additional investigating.

Things reached a nadir this week when Kris Wraight, who has long expressed concerns about police conduct toward minority members of the community, won election as chairwoman. Officer Todd Lynch, the police union president and a member of the committee, walked out and vowed there would be no union support for any committee-sponsored functions.

Officer Lynch is upset in particular with a Dec. 31 letter to the editor from Ms. Wraight published by this newspaper. In the letter, she objected to a proposal from Acting Police Chief Peter Reichard that the department invest in more riot gear.

“Teach your majority white force to view New London’s black and brown residents as human beings, not thugs,” she wrote, adding that department leadership should “train your officers not to kill black people.”

As noted in an earlier editorial, Ms. Wraight should have used less aggressive and disparaging language to make her point that police should spend money on anti-bias training, not riot preparation. From our perspective, police need to do both.

That she holds and voices strong, even controversial, opinions does not justify removing Ms. Wraight from her position on the committee, as the union demanded. That would send the message to other PCRC members to be careful what they say about police for fear the council could remove them, too.

The larger issue remains that the PCRC has no clear mission or authority. Its members are deeply divided as to how they see the committee’s role, the group so dysfunctional that proper meeting records are not available, according to the recent Day story.

After 40 years, it is time for change. Candidates for mayor could make policy proposals during the 2015 campaign. The council could undertake a review or refer the matter to the Charter Review Board.

As constituted, the PCRC is not working well for anyone. 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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