OPINION: Here’s a very old question

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

It’s a question the Roman poet Juvenal asked a very long time ago: “Who will guard the guards themselves?” Roughly, “Who will police the police?”

Fast-forward about 16 centuries and that question comes to mind in regard to what the whole country has been pondering since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last year. Here in Meriden, it comes up in regard to the recent 7-1 vote by a City Council committee to recommend that the city establish a police review board.

“The additional level of external oversight, as opposed to internal, is a good idea,” said Committee Chairman Michael Cardona.

But Councilor Bob Williams Jr., the sole dissenter, asked, “Where does this go next, quite frankly? Does this thing start to look at defunding police?”

Absolutely not. No one in their right mind wants that. And it also needs to be said that this board — should the city choose to create one — is not an “anti-police” measure. It is simply a sensible effort to broaden the scope of those who monitor possible brutality incidents — which can be damaging to the public’s perception of the police and can get very expensive when people decide to sue the city — to a larger group chosen to be more representative of the community.

In such cases, a decision made by one person — the chief, say, or maybe a hand-picked member of the PD’s top brass, or even a small unit tasked with riding herd on internal affairs — can easily look like a cover-up or a slap on the wrist (“Nothing to see here. Move along.”) and can do major and unnecessary damage to the public’s confidence in the department.

And if any municipality around here has had experience with that sort of thing, it’s Meriden. Much as I hate to dredge up this history, it’s exactly the kind of thing a review board might have prevented. Not so many years ago, an MPD officer was credibly accused of using excessive force against a handcuffed man in lockup. 

What the department deemed appropriate — under the leadership of the accused officer’s father — was nothing less than farce: to issue a letter of reprimand, commission an expensive outside report and hire a public relations firm. What a federal jury thought right was to sentence the officer to 14 months in prison on civil rights and other charges.

And now it’s time for a disclaimer: It is by now mandatory to say, when writing on this topic, that most police officers don’t get into that kind of trouble because most police officers are honorable people just trying to do a difficult and stressful job.

I say it and I mean it. They’re out there to protect us, but first of all they have an absolute right to protect themselves. I don’t know what it’s like to be a cop, but I can imagine that my (arguably relatively sunny) attitude toward my fellow man might sour a bit if every day I had to face total strangers who were breaking the law, people who might be dangerous, people I simply had the bad luck to encounter when they were behaving at their worst.

Cops just want to come home safely each night.

Reach Glenn Richter at grichter@record-journal.com.

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