New Haven's push for police accountability
Steven Winter ’11 couldn’t understand why the police were putting him in handcuffs.
“All I was trying to do was check up on my friend,” Winter told the News earlier this month.
At around 1 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010, New Haven Police Department officers raided Morse-Stiles Screw at the Elevate and Alchemy nightclub, tasing a member of the Yale football team and arresting five students, including Winter. The police, some of them in SWAT gear, cursed and yelled as they raided the club — using physical force and threatening to jail students if they didn’t “shut the f— up.” Winter, who was charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing, eventually saw his charges dropped after he promised not to sue the New Haven Police Department.
The police chief at the time, Frank Limon, assigned blame for the incident to former Assistant Chief Ariel Melendez, who led the raid. Limon retired before the release of an Internal Affairs report on the encounter, which determined the officers’ actions were justifiable and that they did not use unnecessary force.
But Yale students disagreed. Outrage ensued. Marches on New Haven police headquarters followed.
Compared to some others’ experiences, though, Winter’s was mild. Over the years, activists say, New Haven residents have seen their loved ones harassed, or even shot, by police officers with little or no consequences.
Now, Winter, the newly elected alder for Ward 21, is part of a cohort of activists pushing for New Haven to form an independent civilian review board — a body that would oversee policing in the city and investigate misconduct. Activists say that without an independent civilian review board, the police lack accountability, and situations like Winter’s — and others far more serious — will continue to beset the city.
Yet creating an effective civilian review board is easier said than done. The New Haven Police Union has expressed opposition to a board with any role in disciplining officers, citing language in the police union’s labor contract. The expenses associated with putting together the board have deterred the city during a period of fiscal restraint. And the question of whether the board would have subpoena power — the ability to demand documents and appearances by witnesses — has stalled efforts.
But now, with protests against police violence and calls for greater accountability sweeping the nation, this decadeslong effort has seen a resurgence, and activists are more adamant than ever that the city must institute an effective civilian review board.
A DECADESLONG PROCESS
For over 20 years, members of the New Haven community have pushed the city to establish a civilian review board, but the question remains: What would a truly effective civilian review board in New Haven entail?
The matter first arose in November 1995, when then-Ward 3 Alder Anthony Dawson proposed an ordinance to the Board of Alders for an all-civilian review board. At the time, though, few alders considered the proposal particularly pressing, and the ordinance never came to a full-board vote.
Two years later, an unarmed 21-year-old, Malik Jones, was shot at close range by an East Haven officer following a car chase in New Haven. A burst of activism on the issue followed. For years, Emma Jones, Malik’s mother, fought for justice for her son, arguing that the shooting was unwarranted. The case dragged on for a decade and a half, with appeals and petitions filed on both sides. Although Emma Jones never received compensation — the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear her case — a judge eventually ruled that her son’s civil rights had been violated.
Jones’ case caused civilian review board discussions to accelerate in the late 1990s and 2000s. At forums, conferences and meetings, residents called for a strong civilian review board with subpoena power — the ability to compel testimony, summon documents and demand other evidence related to an investigation. But in 2001, before the Board of Alders could propose or vote on an ordinance, then-Mayor John DeStefano issued an executive order calling for a civilian review board. The caveat? The board DeStefano outlined was not independent from the New Haven Police Department; it relied on police officers to conduct investigations on their fellow officers’ alleged misconduct. It also lacked subpoena power.
“Mayor DeStefano basically halted the whole process by passing a board of his own by executive order,” said Wally Hilke LAW ’18, who got involved in the civilian review board effort when activists recruited Yale Law School students for research.
In short, the executive order created a civilian review board that had none of the powers advocates were pushing for. Since it lacked adequate funds, the board had to rely on police staff to investigate misconduct, meaning the board could not collect information on its own. Hilke said that this board’s establishment took some of the “wind out of the sails,” because some activists thought they had succeeded in creating a New Haven civilian review board, even though the board lacked the powers it needed to be effective.
Chris Desir LAW ’18, another law student and community organizer, called DeStefano’s board a “smokescreen” that provided a layer of “apparent legitimacy.”
DeStefano acknowledged in an interview that the board he established in 2001 probably did not have enough resources or personnel to be as effective as it was intended to be.
“I don’t think what we tried to do in 2001 was necessarily conceptually inappropriate,” DeStefano said. “I just think perhaps we didn’t implement it as aggressively as we might have.”
Regardless of that board’s effectiveness, or lack thereof, all was not lost — activists had another chance to institute a board, this time with the necessary powers.
Every 10 years, the New Haven city charter — the document that lays out the rights and privileges of various Elm City institutions — goes up for review. In 2013, after much debate, a referendum was passed that mandated the creation of a more powerful review board in the city charter, dissolving DeStefano’s “smokescreen” board.
Still, five years after the referendum, with the requirement in the city charter, there is no civilian review board in New Haven, as questions about implementation continue to retard a decadeslong process.
THE RIGHT INGREDIENTS
Following the election of President Donald Trump, protests on both sides of the aisle flooded news print and television screens. In June 2017, longtime New Haven activist Barbara Fair was trying to counterprotest white nationalists on the New Haven Green. But in the process, she was arrested — unjustly, she said.
Fair said she filed a complaint for an investigation with the Internal Affairs office after the arrest. But in January 2018, she found out the case had been closed even though the office never reached out to her for additional comment following her initial statement.
Fair said the closure of her Internal Affairs case highlights one of the central shortcomings of the police department: a lack of transparency. Camille Seaberry ’08, an organizer with People Against Police Brutality, agreed, saying that transparency is a key component to an effective internal affairs office.
“You file a complaint and you don’t really know what happens,” Seaberry said. “It’s just kind of a black box.”
Fair and Seaberry believe the solution to the transparency problem is a powerful civilian review board. And many New Haveners share that view, according to Ward 7 Alder Abigail Roth ’90 LAW ’94, who said the need for a board is one of the three issues her constituents brought up most often during the campaign.
“By having the ability to actually have accountability and shine a light on those officers who are bad apples, it protects the ones who are good — who are most of them — and it helps our justice system,” Roth said.
A year ago, in a statement to the News, New Haven police chief Anthony Campbell ’95 DIV ’09, said he generally supports the implementation of a civilian review board, as it would strengthen the department’s accountability. Over the past week, Campbell did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the powers he would like to see a civilian review board possess.
Activists don’t want just any civilian review board. They want one with the power to hold the police department to account. That means having an independent investigator, unaffiliated with the police department, Winter said. And it also means giving the board subpoena power and some role in deciding appropriate disciplinary action for officers.
“In a democracy, the community should control how police departments operate, not the other way around,” said Dan Barrett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut. “Ensuring that a civilian review board is run by and for the people requires making sure that civilian review board is independent from the police department.”
Even DeStefano — whose meager civilian review board may have set the movement back in the early 2000s — agrees that while police officers generally behave well, a review board would benefit the community.
“I don’t think you need to have a problem in order to have robust review of police behaviors,” he said. “I think it serves everybody well to have that.”
THE POWER TO SUBPOENA?
Creating an independent, effective civilian review board is not as simple as putting a few New Haven residents in a room to talk about police misconduct. Without subpoena power — the ability to gather documents and compel witnesses, especially police officers, to testify — a civilian review board would have no teeth, experts and activists say.
Although many alders, both past and present, have argued that it would be illegal for the civilian review board to have subpoena power, Hilke said that is simply misinformation that has been propagated over the years.
During the latest public hearing held on the civilian review board in April 2017, then-Ward 9 Alder and Legislation Committee Chair Jessica Holmes said that granting subpoena or discipline power to the review board is illegal under state law, which stipulates that an institution cannot acquire subpoena power unless it is conferred by the state.
But Hilke has some evidence on his side. According to a memo provided to the News that New Haven’s Corporation Counsel John Rose Jr. sent to the Board of Alders in 2015, the civilian review board mandated by the charter could in fact have subpoena power. The Special Act of 1899 granted the city’s Board of Alders and their committees and commissions the power to issue subpoenas. The civilian review board would be one of those commissions.
“The Civilian Review Board, as one ‘of the several boards of commissioners’ of the Board of Alders has the power to compel the attendance and testimony of witnesses before it by the issuance of subpoenas and the administration of oaths,” the memo reads.
Hilke said the ambiguous part of the memo is a line that says that neither the Board of Alders nor the Civilian Review Board has the power or authority to enforce a subpoena that would compel the attendance or testimony of a reluctant witness.
From Hilke’s perspective, that line simply describes the way a subpoena functions. If a person does not comply with a subpoena, then the investigator must go to a judge to enforce the warrant.
“That doesn’t make the power any weaker, it just means that the subpoena power that a civilian review board would hold works in the usual way,” Hilke said.
Roth — the Ward 7 alder and a graduate of Yale Law School — seconded Wilke’s assessment, saying that she read the memo the same way Hilke did.
In fact, many cities across the country have civilian review boards with subpoena power, demonstrating that it can be legal.
Regardless of the confusion over the legality of subpoena power for the civilian review board, there has never been any doubt that the Board of Alders itself has the ability to subpoena documents and witnesses. In 2010, for example, then-Ward 8 Alder Michael Smart used that authority to call members of the city’s tax appeals board to testify about tax assessment complaints.
Setting aside those legal questions, though, why is subpoena power so central to the community review board envisioned by the activists?
The short answer is that without subpoena power, the board would have no way to obtain information. For example, Hilke said, if someone were shot by a police officer outside Walgreens, without subpoena power, a civilian review board might struggle to obtain video footage or hear directly from the officer who fired the gun.
For the most part, Seaberry said, the subpoena power would go toward “boring” things like obtaining documents and surveillance camera footage rather than calling police officers to the stand. Across the country, the civilian review boards that do have subpoena power rarely use it to compel police officers to testify, Hilke said.
The “magic” of subpoena power, he emphasized, is that once a board has it, it rarely has to use it.
When people know they could be brought in front of a judge, they tend to start complying.
CONFRONTING THE UNION
In the 2013, New Haveners voted by referendum to create a civilian review board. But five years later, no such board exists, and the alders are not in the process of creating one.
After the referendum passed, the next step was to create an ordinance calling for the civilian review board. Though the language in the city charter carries the force of law, it contains no timeline for the creation of the civilian review board. In theory, debates over technicalities could drag on indefinitely.
And after the referendum, Seaberry said, “nobody was jumping at the opportunity.” One reason for the delay has been resistance from the New Haven Police Union Elm City Local. In an April 2017 hearing on the topic held by the Board of Alders Legislative and Public Safety committees, members of the New Haven Police Union expressed concern that parts of the civilian review board — such as the idea that it could have a role in deciding disciplinary action — would violate police union contracts.
When asked about their opinion on the civilian review board and about accusations that they have stalled board creation efforts, the New Haven Police Union said “the union has not been involved with any discussions regarding a [civilian review board] or been invited to any discussions.”
“Police are supposed to serve the public,” said Barrett, the legal director of the Connecticut ACLU. “Yet in America, at every level, police have rigged the system against everyday people seeking to hold their police departments accountable to democratic checks and balances.”
Eventually, activist groups like People Against Police Brutality began drafting the ordinance with the goal of introducing it themselves. In April 2017, they introduced the Malik Jones All-Civilian Review Board ordinance — which is based on Emma Jones’ original proposal and named after Malik Jones, the 21-year-old who was shot in 1997. The groups are still in the process of reviewing the language and taking community suggestions.
Desir, the law student and community organizer, rejected the police union’s argument about its contract. Even if disciplinary power interferes with the current language of the contract, Desir said, the board could simply delay the implementation of that particular power until the expiration of the contract. At that point, the police union would have to renegotiate with the city, and the new contract would have to align with city law.
Still, Desir acknowledged that politics is a “slow process.” The Board of Alders has also played a part in holding up the process, partly because of “fears of litigation if a strong civilian review board is enacted,” said Ioann Popov ’21, a member of the Police Brutality Mapping Project for the Yale Undergraduate Legal Aid Association.
Popov said that when he spoke with Ward 8 Alder Aaron Greenberg GRD ’18, Greenberg said the city has “dealt with [human relations]–related lawsuits in the past and does not want to face the legal action from the police union.” Greenberg referred questions about the board to the Public Safety Committee and Legislation Committee chairs Ward 12 Alder Gerald Antunes and Ward 13 Alder Rosa Santana. Antunes said that while he does not know why the civilian review board has been held up, he recognizes there is a “time coordination” issue when a joint committee is involved.
Regardless of those uncertainties and the police union’s opposition, New Haven may not actually have enough money to establish a civilian review board anytime soon.
The board that DeStefano established in 2001 lacked resources, which led to many complaints. And given the fiscal difficulties currently facing New Haven, a new board — even with subpoena power — could have the same problem. The mayor’s most recent budget proposal includes an 11 percent property tax hike, as well as cuts to various city departments. And there is little incentive for the Board of Alders to carve out room in the budget for an as-yet-nonexistent civilian review board.
Still, Desir and other advocates on the issue have called for 0.001 percent of the city’s budget — or roughly $600,000 — to be allocated for a civilian review board. Though it is “not a great climate” to be asking the city to spend more money, Desir noted, it is a relatively small amount.
“If something is a priority they find money for it,” Desir said.
Roth said the budget is a “huge question to address,” especially in this fiscal year. But she added that the city spent $9 million settling a wrongful imprisonment case stemming from police misconduct this year.
“Getting rid of bad apples ultimately is a very wise investment,” Roth said.
The civilian review board will not come to fruition before discussions of this year’s budget end, but the question remains: Where will the money ultimately come from? Will it come from the police department’s proposed budget? From some other section of the city’s budget?
That, Roth said, remains unclear.
BOARDS ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Still, for all the challenges, an independent civilian review board in New Haven is not an outlandish fantasy. According to data by the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, there are approximately 144 such oversight agencies nationwide as of 2016. Desir and Hilke said that based on their research and discussions with other civilian review boards — including those in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Newark, New Jersey — subpoena power, a paid independent staff and transparency are all key ingredients for an effective board. Desir said that the activist groups modeled their proposals for the Elm City on both the successes and failures of similar boards in other cities.
In 2001, Cincinnati saw some of the largest riots and demonstrations of civil disorder in U.S. history. As a result, in 2003, the Memorandum of Agreement and the Collaborative Agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the city of Cincinnati established the Citizen Complaint Authority.
Kim Neal, the director of the Citizen Complaint Authority in Cincinnati, said independence from the police allows the civilian review board to conduct its own investigations. Though the board counsel has subpoena power, she noted that, like Hilke suggested, it has never actually had to issue a subpoena. If a police officer refuses to comply or appear for the investigation, Neal said, she usually goes straight to the chief, who then orders the person to show up. She noted that most police chiefs don’t want the “public scrutiny” that would ensue if an officer did not comply with the investigation.
But she also said that Cincinnati has received pushback from the police union because officers “want to control the whole process.”
Neal said she thinks there has been a positive shift since the creation of the Citizen Complaint Authority, but she also added that many community members may not agree and issues are not all eradicated.
The Cincinnati police union did not respond to request for comment.
The Citizen Complaint Authority has made some meaningful changes. When Everette Howard died after being tased by a University of Cincinnati police officer in 2011, the authority looked into taser policy. Following the investigation, taser policies underwent serious reform. Now, taser shots to a person’s head, neck, eyes, throat, chest or genitals are forbidden, unless the action is taken in self-defense or as an effort to protect another person.
According to Hilke, the Cincinnati civilian review board sustains one in 12 complaints on average — demonstrating it has actual power and importance.
But one thing Cincinnati does not have is the ability to conduct administrative prosecutions for the most severe allegations of misconduct.
The only civilian review board in the country with that power is New York City’s, according to city officials there. Since its founding, the board has tried over 250 officers through the administrative prosecution process.
“Unfortunately,” Hilke said, “there has been no example of a civilian review being effective without having any power.”
MALIK ORDINANCE AND NEXT STEPS
In April 2017, at the last public Board of Alders hearing regarding the creation of a civilian review board, the Board of Alders introduced an ordinance — one that lacked many of the ingredients activists were pushing for. Without subpoena power or the ability to play a role in determining appropriate discipline for officers, activists at the meeting said the board did not solve the problems of trust it had with the New Haven Police Department.
Though there have been no Board of Alders committee meetings on the topic since, activists groups such as Justice for Jayson, CT Core and People Against Police Brutality have launched outreach campaigns and held community meetings to discuss the issue.
Now, one of the main proposals up for discussion is the Malik Jones All-Civilian Review Board proposal — an ordinance drafted by the members of People Against Police Brutality, including Hilke, Desir and Seaberry. This proposal creates a “civil review” committee on the Board of Alders, and the alder who chairs that committee would serve as a nonvoting member on the civilian review board. With an alder among its members, the board would have subpoena power.
This ordinance creates a board that would consist of 13 voting members — 10 that would come from citizen groups in the Elm City’s policing districts. Members would be appointed by the mayor and approved by the Board of Alders. The board would also have a full-time director, a staffer and two investigators. The proposed ordinance makes clear that voting members cannot be elected officials; they must be members of the general community.
The Malik Jones All-Civilian Review Board proposal would serve as a three-to-five-year pilot program and would be assessed for effectiveness at the end of the pilot period, according to the ordinance.
All in all, the proposed board would cost around $600,000 — about 1.5 percent of the police department’s budget. But amid the city’s current fiscal uncertainty and looming tax hikes, that money may prove difficult to acquire.
Roth said that the next Board of Alders committee meeting on the subject will hopefully take place in May or June of this year. But because the ordinance is a joint committee topic for the Legislation Committee and the Public Safety Committee, it is harder to coordinate a date.
Despite the long odds, Hilke said he feels like he has a “responsibility” to advocate for a civilian review board given the problem of police brutality in New Haven and other cities across the United States. His collaborators feel much the same way.
“A really good indicator of the health of a community is not just the relationship between the community and the police force,” Desir said, “but the institutional structure of the police force relative to the community.”
Ashna Gupta | firstname.lastname@example.org