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Reducing oversight won't build trust in New London police

The effort by two New London city councilors to keep discussions of alleged police misconduct closed to the public has reached a point of desperation. Unable to get anyone with legal training or administrative authority to agree with them, the councilors - John Maynard and Marie Freiss-McSparran - are now trying to protect officers by truncating the entire civilian complaint process.

In 1976, the city agreed to a stipulated consent decree issued by the U.S. District Court of Connecticut in a case brought by a Hispanic citizen. The defendant had alleged discriminatory actions by police and pointed to the lack of any formal complaint process. The two-page decree required the city to create one. Anyone who feels police acted improperly can file a complaint form. Police then conduct an internal investigation and issue findings. The final report and the complaint that precipitated it are public documents.

To provide additional oversight, a council back then created a Police Community Relations Committee "to foster better understanding between citizens and police officers." The council later gave it the job of reviewing those internal investigations to assure they were adequate or, in other words, to make sure there was not a whitewash.

This responsibility has led to a debate in recent years as to whether the community relations committee should be discussing the complaints and investigation findings in public. The answer is obvious. Yes, the meetings should be open; yet some continue to resist.

The complaints and the reports are public records, so of course the committee's discussion about them should be as well.

The city attorney concludes the discussions must be open under the Connecticut Freedom of Information law. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio agrees, as do the police chief and deputy chief. They all recognize transparency and openness is vital to securing public confidence in the process.

There remain holdouts on the committee itself, those who contend it is unfair to officers to talk about details of the allegations openly. Nevertheless, in recent months the committee has voted repeatedly to keep its meetings open. Officer Todd Lynch, the union president, objects, but that is no surprise.

What is surprising is how persistently councilors Maynard and Friess-McSparran keep fighting to keep this information from the public. With very few exceptions, the Police Community Relations Committee verifies that the internal investigations were carried out adequately. Also, with few exceptions, those investigations clear police of the allegations of misconduct. So why hide anything and erode faith in those findings?

Having failed to win the debate, and finding themselves on the wrong side of FOI law, the two councilors now propose stripping the community relations committee of the authority to review the adequacy of police investigations into civilian complaints. The 2-0 vote came at the May 2 Public Safety Committee meeting, chaired by Maynard and of which Freiss-McSparran is a member. The third member, Councilor Donald Macrino, was absent.

In a Sept. 17 letter sent to Mayor Finizio and the council, the Police Community Relations Committee strongly objected to the attempt to take away its reviewing authority, calling that its "primary responsibility."

"By voting to take this responsibility away, the Public Safety Committee has voted to take the people's voice away," states the letter.

Freiss-McSparran told me the change would allow the committee to focus on building police community relations. Those upset with the results of how police handled their complaint could still appeal to the mayor, she notes.

To her credit, Freiss-McSparran is frank about her primary motive - protecting officers from having allegations about them discussed in public. She doesn't want to see an officer's reputation hurt by unfounded allegations.

Good cops don't need that protection and bad cops shouldn't have it.

"This committee, through ongoing review of completed police investigations provides necessary oversight of the citizen complaint process. This supervision is essential if we are to continue building trust between the community and the New London police force," the committee letter well states.

Fortunately, this ordinance is probably headed nowhere. The proposed ordinance now goes to the Administration Committee. Chairman Wade Hyslop says he opposes it. It's unlikely the council would support it. If it did, Mayor Finizio would veto it.

Voters, however, can weigh in. Maynard is not seeking re-election, but Freiss-McSparran is. Voters should repudiate her blind support for what she sees as serving the interests of police, even at the cost of public accountability. By handing her a layoff notice, voters can send the message that while they respect police, they want their government open.

Paul Choiniere is editorial page editor.


Special report: New London Police Department in Turmoil


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