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Relevance of New London police community relations board questioned

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New London — Nationwide calls for greater oversight of police practices have again ignited talks in New London for formation of a civilian review board, but one with teeth.

Those calls have not gone unnoticed by the volunteer members of the Police Community Relations Committee, who admit that despite the committee’s role in reviewing internal investigations of civilian complaints, it really has no authority to challenge the findings of the police chief.

The committee reviews investigations only after they are completed and votes “adequate,” or “inadequate” on how they were conducted.

“We need to have a civilian review board with subpoena powers,” said New London NAACP President Jean Jordan during a recent interview with The Day.

Jordan said the conversation about a committee with greater oversight powers has continued for years, even before the most recent calls for more police accountability in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. A committee with subpoena power would allow for calling of witnesses and testimony and perhaps some influence in how an officer is disciplined.

The New London-based youth activist group Hearing Youth Voices has an online petition with a list of demands that includes abolishment of the committee in favor of a Community Police Review Board.

Jordan is member of a newly created Public Safety Policy Review Committee and said she expects the issue of a new police oversight committee will be a topic of discussion.

The Police Community Relations Committee was formed in the 1970s as a way to address the lack of a formal civilian complaint process following a lawsuit brought by a Hispanic resident alleging discrimination by police. In 1976, the city agreed to a stipulated consent degree issued by the U.S. District Court of Connecticut that outlined a complaint process that included a 10-day window for the complainant to appeal the findings.

The 13-member Police Community Relations Committee was an outgrowth of that decree, created by the City Council in part “to discuss questions and problems involved in the relationship between all segments of the community and police department, and to recommend to the city administration and City Council methods and programs designed to foster better understanding between citizens and police officers.”

It was also charged with reviewing citizen complaints, which for many years it did behind closed doors to protect police from public airing of grievances against them. While the board now meets in public, citizens in attendance at meetings are still not privy to the documents under review at the meetings.

The council appoints committee members. There are slots for representatives from the NAACP, educational community, Hispanic and gay and lesbian communities, alongside the police union and a designee of the police chief.

Chairman Gregory Archer said he believes the committee still has a role to play as a conduit between police and citizens, since the police department is represented at each meeting and citizens are welcome to attend and ask questions. He said public participation has grown over the last several meetings. He also admits the committee has a limited role when it comes to complaints.

“We follow what we are allowed to do… and it's not very much,” he said.

Archer said with the renewed interest and with more people attending meetings, he hoped “to give the community a chance to voice their opinion for what they want to see.”

Committee member and former chairwoman Kris Wraight offers a more critical view of the committee’s work.

“I personally don’t want to see the committee continue as is. I don’t think it’s serving the needs of the community at all. I’m not sure it ever was,” she said.

Wraight said she got involved because she viewed it as an important watchdog for the community to ensure people were not being mistreated by police. But for years, she said, the committee was in a state of dysfunction, with infighting as a result of what she she called a group stacked with “police cheerleaders.”

Wraight said things have changed and the current membership is more collaborative but remains mostly powerless. She said she would like to see the city fund an independent investigator since many of the complaints come down to a police officer’s word against a citizen's word and more often than not a police officer’s word is given more weight in the investigation.

Police Union President Todd Lynch said he he agrees with the committee’s role of providing transparency to the public but said the committee was set up with clear-cut limits on powers that should not be altered.

“The concern you always have is when individuals who aren’t familiar with laws, use of force policies … which makes it difficult for them to determine outcomes of investigations,” Lynch said.

He said members should not be voting "inadequate" on an investigation simply because it was conducted by the department. He said the department has strict standards on how investigations are conducted and they were collectively bargained with the union.

During his tenure, particularly during the administration of former Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio, Lynch said the council was choosing members “who at the very least didn’t have the best interests of the police department and certainly didn’t have any interest in fostering better police community relations.” 

Marie Gravell, one of the founding members of the committee, recalled a time when there were activities coordinated between the police and the committee, something she would like to see a return to.

Like Gravell, committee member Kat Goulart said she felt the committee still had a role to play with fostering a relationship with police, a forum to allow citizens to have a voice and air concerns that could be addressed by police.

“It’s an emotional time,” Goulart said, “And we need to assess where the problems are and what needs to be changed and how do we do that.”

Of the committee’s powers, Goulart said, “It’s a check, but it's a small check.”

“We all can say you did a fine enough job or you didn’t. You can reasonably assume, in the climate we’re in now and with this committee being formed three decades ago, it might be time for a change,” she said.

Goulart said frustration remains over the lack of support by the city, which years ago pulled funding for a secretary to record meeting minutes. Notes are now taken by whoever volunteers. The committee lacks the ability to view things like police dash cam videos when reviewing cases. That could be a greater issue, considering police are poised to start using body cameras.

Even if the powers of reviewing citizen complaints were stripped away in favor of a different group, Goulart said she would still be involved, since part of the role of the committee should be fostering community relations with law enforcement, as the name of the committee implies.

Mayor Michael Passero said whatever happens in the future will be the result of community consensus.

“Over time there hasn’t been a consensus on how things might be changed,” Passero said. “We have people dissatisfied with the current process. Are we measuring up to the standards of police oversight that the community wants today? I have a completely open mind on this. There are certainly models with greater civilian oversight.”

Passero said he expects a “deliberate conversation” on the matter by the public safety policy review committee.

The next Police Community Relations Committee meeting is scheduled for July 7. The council met recently in person at police headquarters, and Archer said he hoped to avoid the technical glitches that plagued that meeting and appeared to sideline some public comment.  

g.smith@theday.com

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