The chairman of the Public Safety Committee of the City Council offered a solution Monday intending to break deadlock on the Police-Community Relations Committee.
The PCR has been at a standstill over the procedure for how to address complaints against police officers. Some members feel the complaints should be addressed in executive session, keeping officers’ names private, while others feel the process should be done in open session. The PCR has not acted on complaints at its past two meetings pending a decision by the Council.
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Councilor John Maynard proposed that the police chief should not sign off on complaints—thereby making them public—until the PCR has had a chance review them. He said this would allow the complaints to be heard in open session with the officers’ names redacted before the complaint became public under the Freedom of Information Act.
Maynard and Councilor Marie Friess-McSparran agreed to send the proposal to the full membership of the Council. Committee member Donald Macrino was absent.
Concerns with public session
PCR chairman Wayne Vendetto said that the committee’s role has been to determine whether internal investigations of complaints against New London Police Department officers are adequate. He said the complaints and investigation were reviewed in executive session for decades as a personnel matter after the committee received complaints from the deputy chief.
“The personnel reason is they have not been received as public information at this point,” Vendetto said. “So once the deputy [chief] has it, it’s still a personnel matter. Once it’s sent back to the chief it’s still a personnel matter until the chief signs off on this report.”
Vendetto said the change to public session was made in 2010 after the PCR chairman at that time asked the law director, then Tom Londregan, about the possible change. Vendetto said the police department is the only municipal department where complaints are reviewed in open.
“There are things that come up that are not for print. Words that are not for print and for the public,” said Vendetto.
Todd Lynch, president of the New London Police Union, questioned the timing of the change and said he thought it had been instituted by Chief Margaret Ackley in an effort to discredit union members.
“The union has always wanted one thing and that’s fairness to the officers,” said Lynch. “We’re not looking to hide anything. We’re not looking to hide investigations. But we’ve always asked through the political leaders, through the committee members, ‘Why was it changed?’”
Support of public session
Committee member Kris Wraight, who was unable to attend Monday’s meeting, said in an e-mail that the committee was formed due to complaints of improper police actions and that the committee must be accountable to citizens rather than officers. She said the committee should remain open and transparent as a demonstration of public trust.
“Many citizens and youth of New London still have a great deal of mistrust for
New London police officers and a tremendous amount of work still needs to
be done to build that trust up,” said Wraight. “Going back into executive session will only damage this trust further.”
Acting Chief Peter Reichard said the open session allows residents to confirm that proper procedure is being followed in handling the complaints. He said the police administration is also maintaining Mayor Daryl Finizio’s assertion that the process should be open.
“We will continue to go in the direction of the administration, and the direction of the administration at this time is everything is going to be transparent,” Reichard said.
PCR member Erica Richardson said she was frustrated with the committee’s stalemate, particularly an attempt at the last meeting to redact documents that were already public. She said there is usually sparse attendance at the PCR meetings and that public sessions have little chance of embarrassing officers.
“I don’t hear enough about protecting the citizens and residents of New London,” said Richardson. “Police officers are in a unique position and should be held to a higher standard than any other agency out there.”
Public Safety Committee discussion
Councilor Adam Sprecace suggested that as a compromise, the PCR might hear complaints with names redacted and an announcement to attendees that the names are available through a Freedom of Information Act request.
“It seems to me that your committee can do the work that is required by ordinance without having the names identified in public session,” he said.
Council President Michael Passero said the question was whether to hold a review after the internal investigation was complete and public. He later asked Law Director Jeffrey Londregan if the names of the complainant and officer were subject to FOI once a complaint has been filed, and Londregan said they were.
“It seems to be having it in open session but pretending not to know the officer’s name would be a bit of a ruse,” said Passero.
In suggesting that the PCR’s input be heard earlier in the process, Maynard said he did not consider the committee’s role to be pertinent unless it could contribute before the chief finalizes the process. He also said he was opposed to hearing complaints in executive session, prompting a heated exchange with PCR member Carl Lee.
“This is baloney,” Lee said at one point.
The matter will go before the full Council at their regular meeting on March 4. The PCR’s next monthly meeting will take place the next day.