MERIDEN — The city will have a civilian review board to address all incidents of police use-of-force if the City Council follows a recommendation from a committee that met for the final time on Wednesday.
With Republican Councilor Bob Williams Jr. the sole dissenter, the Use of Force Study Committee voted 7 to 1 during a 3½-hour virtual meeting on Wednesday to issue a 34-page final report recommending that the council form the nine-member review board. The vote comes after a series of 5 to 3 votes on June 28 showed that the committee favored a board.
The report also outlines the committee’s own history of meetings and research to help the council see how it arrived at its recommendation. Committee Chairman Michael Cardona, who is also a member of the City Council, hopes fellow councilors heeds the advice.
“The additional level of external oversight, as opposed to internal, is a good idea,” Cardona said Thursday.
Williams disagreed, saying that with the police chief, town manager and council’s Public Safety Committee in place already, the city did not need a civilian review board.
“I know that we had extensive information shared with us from the PD and clearly there has not been any use of force issues [in Meriden] and we did not have an ongoing issue with regards to that,” Williams said, praising the committee’s report as excellent and thorough.
“Where does this go next, quite frankly? Does this thing start to look at defunding police? That certainly appears to be a conversation in a lot of your larger cities,” Williams added.
“Where does this thing go? Is this point one and we move towards three or four other talking points as well?”
The council formed the study committee amid the national furor caused by the police brutality that led to the death of Minneapolis resident George Floyd last year.
The lack of use of force complaints filed against Meriden police, on average a half-dozen annually, argues for the board’s formation as much as against it, committee members said. While a civilian board has its challenges, “the committee agrees with the view that it is better to be proactive in creating such a board before a tragedy befalls the city,” according to the committee report.
Acting only in an advisory capacity — meaning that its actions would by themselves have no power to change anything — the board would review all completed internal affairs investigations “solely as to [their] thoroughness, completeness, accuracy and objectivity” and vote whether to concur with the investigations’ findings.
A letter detailing individual votes and providing a summary of findings and recommendations would then go to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, city manager and the police chief, according to the report.
The civilian review board would perform several functions, according to Cardona and the report, including:
■ Helping residents to “feel validated, regardless of outcome, when an independent overseer reviews their case.”■ Improving police relationships and general image within the community.■ Strengthening the quality of internal affairs investigations and “reassure the public that the process is fair.”
“Local elected officials have remarked that a CRB helps in their effort to eliminate police misconduct and in some cases reduce civil lawsuits against the municipality,” according to the report. “Once the Chief makes a final decision, a dissatisfied complainant’s only recourse seems to be through a lawsuit, which could be expensive and impractical for many citizens.”
Under the department’s present setup, “no appeal can be taken from his ruling,” the report states.
A civilian review board would track individual complaints and big-picture trends and see whether police officers were being disciplined fairly or whether police misconduct was being mishandled, Cardona said.
While four of its nine members would be residents appointed from the city’s four voting districts, five of the board’s members would be professionals with professional backgrounds that would help them understand the legalities of confidentiality, freedom of information laws and the criminal and civil courts and laws, the report states.
Lawyers, retired criminal justice professionals, educators, mental-health and healthcare professionals, clergy, or local business owners would be among those eligible for the at-large seats. No member shall be a former Meriden police officer unless at least five years have passed since retirement, the report states.
The council will take up the report and the committee’s recommendation at its next meeting or one thereafter, Cardona said.