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Committee recommends civilian police review board in New London

New London — A special committee tasked with a review of policies and practices of the New London Police Department has suggested the formation of a civilian police review board and a charter change to clear the path for creation of a police commission.

Months of work by the Public Safety Policy Review Committee is summarized in a 17-page report with a list of recommendations, with short- and long-term goals, aimed at providing more community oversight and police accountability.

The report, guided by the state’s new police accountability legislation, was submitted to Mayor Michael Passero this week.

The committee does not call for an outright reduction of the police budget but does advocate for a restructuring of police funds and a “holistic approach to budgeting for public safety and support services.”

That approach eventually might include City Council involvement in police contract negotiations and an increase in funding for the Human Services Department. The report suggests some police funding be shifted to things like crisis intervention and anti-racism training in the department.

“In keeping with national trends, wherever possible, the Mayor and City Council should make every effort to redirect funding and resources from policing to education and social services,” the report reads.

The committee examined models in other communities where special units have been developed to respond to emergency calls involving mental health, substance abuse, sexual or domestic violence and other social issues. The idea is that city residents are better served when there is an alternative to sending an armed police officer to every call.

City Councilor Curtis Goodwin, a member of the committee, said offering alternatives during responses to emergencies makes sense, considering the high volume of calls for things like domestic disputes or related to mental illness.

The group had met with representatives of the Denver Police Department and Mental Health Center of Denver Co-Responder Initiative, which have implemented a model of criminal justice diversion “that pairs law enforcement and behavioral health specialists to intervene and respond to behavioral health-related calls for police service.”

The impetus for the committee’s scrutiny of the department was the death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis in 2020. Floyd’s killing led to nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality and included local support for police-related issues raised in the Black Lives Matter movement.

The committee started meeting in June based on an idea spearheaded by Passero and Connecticut College, whose dean of institutional equity and inclusion, John F. McKnight Jr., served as the group’s facilitator.

Tamara Lanier, vice president of the New London chapter of the NAACP and member of the committee, said the group never lost sight of the reasons it had come together.

“Each and every member brought to the discussion a frustration in the wake of George Floyd’s death and a genuine desire to build a more accountable, inclusive and community-based police department,” Lanier said.

The cross section of people on the committee, Lanier said, had varying opinions but all agreed and “absolutely insisted on” the formation of an independent police commission.

“Concerns were raised about the conflicts with the city’s charter in the role of a strong mayor, but members felt that the commission was too important and that we would work within the limits of the charter to frame such a commission,” she said.

Passero said an important part of the report is that some of the ideas, such as the creation of a civilian review board, could be started almost immediately.

“There are practical steps we can take quickly to try to reinforce the confidence of the community in our policing efforts,” Passero said.

The civilian police review board could be established by the City Council and could, depending on the model used, investigate allegations of police misconduct or take over the review of investigations from the existing Police Community Relations Committee. The review board, in contrast to the limited powers of the Police Community Relations Committee, could have subpoena powers to compel witnesses and provide for presentation of evidence, along with the ability to review police department policies.

Formation of a police commission is a more involved process that includes creation of a charter revision commission and eventually a referendum vote, Passero said. The police commission would help guide hiring and firing decisions, along with other personnel-related matters at the police department.

“While we feel that a commission will significantly strengthen police accountability by granting the authority to hire and dismiss officers, we also recognize that the establishment will require a significant amount of time and political will, beginning with the process to revise the City Charter and contract negotiations with the Police Union,” the report reads.

Passero said he was heartened by the report’s emphasis on the partnership of the Human Services Department, a department he created shortly after taking office in recognition of the many social issues faced by the city. The department is composed of a lone city employee: Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein.

Funding for an expansion of the department or its extension to outside social service agencies, Passero said, would be something explored during the budget process but he said his inclination is to partner with an outside agency, such as Sound Community Services.

Goodwin said he would favor a phased approach to tackling some of the funding issues to ensure the police department remains adequately staffed. A simple “defunding” of police, he said, could be devastating to the public safety infrastructure.

He said the council has been kept appraised of the recommendations in the report and expects a timely discussion about creation of a civilian police review board with input from members of the Police Community Relations Committee to ensure there are no redundancies.

“At the end of the day we want to ensure our citizens feel protected ... and have an equitable and fair review process,” Goodwin said.

Overall, he said the process was “authentic, thoughtful and very intentional.” He expects changes at the department will, in part, be rooted in new recruits who will have benefited from the city’s investment in updated training and will help strengthen the relationship between the department and the community.

“I’m thankful for the committee’s hard work on this important review,” Passero said in a statement. “I owe this group an enormous debt and gratitude for its guidance and counsel. I am confident that this work will advance the goal of ensuring that our police force reflects the values and expectations of our community.”

The report recognizes existing strengths of the department: crisis intervention training, updates to use-of-force policies and recent implementation of a body and dash cameras program.

Other recommendations in the report include development of a recruitment pipeline to encourage more recruits who represent the racial composition of the city; engagement with youth organizations; changes to staffing structures that include certain ratios of sergeants to patrol officers; development of a formal performance evaluation process for officers; and removal of the school resource officer program.

Among the report’s recommendations to improve community relations would be a change to social media policies at the police department to curb what some have deemed bullying posts by the local police union.

g.smith@theday.com

Learn more

The public will have an opportunity to comment on the report at an open Zoom meeting at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 21. Participants are asked to register in advance of the meeting at bit.ly/nlprczoomreg.

The Day and Connecticut College will be hosting a virtual event at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 27, called Conversations on Race: Policing in the U.S. and New London. It's the latest installment of a series launched in 2019.

This event will feature opening remarks from Debo Adegbile, Class of '91, a partner at WilmerHale Law, and Ronald Davis, former director of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services under the Obama administration. Adegbile and Davis worked together with the U.S. Mayors Conference to produce an extensive report on police reform and racial justice. Their remarks will be followed by a panel discussion about police reform in New London.

Registration for the event is available at elevate.conncoll.edu/events. Readers can send questions for the panel to Karen Florin, Day audience engagement editor, at k.florin@theday.com.




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