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We again ask New London to replace weak, dysfunctional police committee

New London needs a police 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.

We wrote that more than five years ago, in April, 2015. In fact, our concerns that the city employs an “oversight” system more likely to coverup police malfeasance than to expose it go back even further.

“New London deserves the assurance of true civilian oversight, not just the appearance of oversight, which is what it has now,” stated a 2009 editorial.

Frustratingly, little has changed. Perhaps now, with citizens in the streets demanding a better model for policing, it will.

What New London has now — the Police Community Relations Committee — is not sufficient to maintain public confidence in police or provide the necessary oversight.

The 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 complaint.

The City Council created the community relations committee in the aftermath of the lawsuit, stating that its purpose was “to foster better understanding between citizens and police officers.”

It never worked as intended.

Instead, for years, the committee reviewed the results of internal investigations of complaints against officers behind closed doors, in violation of Freedom of Information rules. It acted as a rubber-stamp in affirming internal police investigations that cleared officers and dismissed citizen complaints.

It wasn’t until this newspaper exposed and decried its secret functioning that its meetings were brought into the open.

But openness alone is not enough. In fact, it has made the committee’s lack of any real 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.

The committee is now often the source of infighting and disagreement, but not effective guidance or change. In any event, as well intentioned as the committee members may be, as much as the leadership of the New London Police Department is willing to listen to its input, it is not enough.

New London needs a genuine police commission. One that has the authority to direct change in policy and a shifting of priorities. One that can get at the truth of alleged misconduct, question and evaluate police data and pursue improved police and community relations. A commission with some teeth and one that well represents the diversity of the community its police are sworn to serve and protect.

The police union has been resistant to change that would take matters outside of city politics and away from the levers that it may attempt to pull at City Hall.

In his first campaign for mayor in 2015, former councilor and retired firefighter Michael Passero said he would explore a new, effective approach to replace the Police Community Relations Committee. He won, but nothing happened. He is now several months into a second term.

Responding to the renewed demands for action, Passero has appointed a Public Safety Policy Review Board to advise him on policing in the city. The potential replacement of the community relations committee with a more effective oversight panel will be on its agenda, he said.

If that leads to real change, wonderful. But if it just an effort to buy time until the pressure eases, we’ll call him on it.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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