Steve Winter will never forget what cops did to him seven years ago. Now he has a chance to help make sure that when cops do that to other citizens, citizens have a chance to hold them accountable.
Police arrested Winter for asking a question out on the street about a raid and mass arrests they conducted at the former Elevate nightclub on Crown Street on Oct. 2, 2010. The overreaction and trampling of rights that took place that night led to public outrage, a scathing police internal investigation, and some policy changes demanded by an activist movement Winter joined.
Winter assumes a new role in town next month, as the new alder representing Ward 21, which includes portions of Newhallville, Dixwell and Prospect Hill.
In that role, he has a chance to pursue a piece of unfinished business from the 2010 Elevate incident. Activists (including a group he helped form, Citizens for Policing Reform) have pushed for New Haven to create a strengthened, independent civilian review board to allow citizens to review alleged police misbehavior. Alders succeeded in pushing a charter revision referendum four years ago requiring the creation of such a commission. But then the alders failed for four years to make that happen. (Click here and here for stories about that.)
“We should have a civilian review board by now,” Winter said in an interview on WNHH radio’s “Dateline New Haven” program. “It’s been long enough.”
As a newcomer to the Board of Alders and one of only 30 members, Winter knows he can’t make it happen alone.
But, he noted, he is one of 10 new alders taking office. And other alders are committed to the project. So he is making a priority of working with his colleagues to pass a bill to create a new review board, one with subpoena power.
The board itself can’t have subpoena power under state law. Winter argued that the alders can tap subpoena powers granted to other officials, such as the Board of Alders president, for the review board. And he argued that other cities, most notably Newark, N.J., have forged models for how to invest review boards with reasonable powers to discipline wayward officers.
Winter, 29, is one of two incoming alders elected as independents rather than as Democrats; currently all 30 alders are Democrats. A climate-change, urban farming, and National Popular Vote activist, he identifies as a progressive. He said he ran as an independent to better connect with all his constituents. Asked for his take on the current board — the majority backed by Yale’s UNITE HERE unions — he said he supports its general mission, if not always its approach to governing.
“I think the unions have a strong role in supporting the whole economy in a lot of ways. The unions have helped us, I think, bring a lot of stronger diversity of city voices to City Hall,” Winter said. “At the same time, there is a real hunger in New Haven for more openness and transparency in the decision-making process. People want to see that transparency. They want to know if the Board of Alders or a committee is getting involved in something, they’re doing it in good faith, and not because of a contract negotiation that is going on someplace else.”
Winter has seen before how people can organize to turn unfortunate encounters with government authority into meaningful social change. Before moving back to New Haven (he’s a Yale graduate), he and his wife Emily lived in a housing co-op in Boulder, Colorado. Back then, Boulder enforced a rule barring such living arrangements — a rule that prevented one last option for affordable housing in a gentrifying city. Winter and others affected successfully lobbied the city government to change the rule and allow co-op housing.
He spoke in the radio interview of why, and how, he hopes to see a similar result in the quest to hold New Haven police accountable to the public. An edited excerpt of that interview follows.
Winter: I have been talking about a civilian review board since I was arrested by New Haven police in 2010.
WNHH: What happened that night at Elevate? How did that affect your take on public accountability?
That was really an eye-opening night for me as a young white guy. I was actually hanging out in my dorm room. I was a senior at Yale. I got a call that one of my friends had been arrested at this nightclub raid downtown. I couldn’t believe it. This was the nicest guy. I couldn’t believe he would be arrested for anything.
So I went downtown to try to find out what was happening and saw him and a few others handcuffed sitting on the curb. I asked an officer, “Excuse me. I’m trying to find out what happened to my friend.”
I was told in not-so-polite terms that I had to get out of there.
While I was backing up with my hands over my head, a second officer came up behind me and handcuffed me.
I didn’t see him coming.
I was charged with disorderly conduct and trespassing.
Where were you?
I was on the street. I wasn’t in the club.
Why was the club raided? Because they had underaged people there?
That was the supposed rationale for the club raid. If you remember that summer, there had been a series of nightclub shootings. There was a crackdown on nightclubs.
Inside, [police] took people’s cellphones, which was illegal. They wouldn’t let people record them.
Cellphone video was a totally new thing. It seems commonplace now. This had just come out. That happened to my friend Zack. He had his cellphone out. He wasn’t videotaping them. But they told him that he had to put his cellphone down.
Now the cop in charge that night, the assistant chief of police, did have to leave the force after an internal affairs investigation found in that and in one other incident on the same block he had violated people’s rights. But they just don’t have that issue [of citizen’s cameras and phones] under control.
So you just got arrested for being there?
I got arrested for asking a question, for asking what had happened to my friend. It led to a six-month ordeal with the city, going to court every couple of weeks, trying to get these charges dropped.
You’ve got to keep going. Get up early, go to court.
In the end, the [government] agreed to drop the charges if I agreed not to file suit.
You have a right to sue if they violate your rights.
But you agreed to it.
I just wanted it to be over.
You are someone who’s educated. You have resources. You were willing to surrender your constitutional rights to the New Haven police when they arrested you for no purpose?
I felt like I didn’t really have a choice. It looked like I would be going to court forever.
How does this make you feel about your black constituents who might not have as many means, who are routinely arrested, often for charges that turn out not to be viable … what does that tell you about what they face every day?
That’s exactly it. You’ve got people being stopped for no reason all the time on trumped-up charges. It was hugely eye-opening for me to see the police report [on my arrest] that was totally contradictory to fact.
The most obvious example was that they said that I was trespassing on a busy street. But the street was closed! They closed Crown Street when the nightclubs got out. It’s just right there on paper.
Did they say you resisted?
They just said you trespassed.
Yeah. [And] disorderly conduct. [Note: In a police report at the time, Officer Yelena Borisova claimed Winter refused to obey multiple orders to move away and obstructed the flow of pedestrian and car traffic.]
“Disorderly conduct” and “interfering” are police-speak for, “We’re going to make up whatever we want to arrest you. Too bad. Now you’re going to spend six months in court until you break down and give up your constitutional rights.”
Yeah. Exactly. And in those six months, nothing happened in my case. It wasn’t like it proceeded in any way. Which is why I said, “You know what? I just want to put this behind me.”
How do you feel about that now? You gave up your rights after you were lied about and gave up six months of your life showing up in this courthouse.
To me the larger lesson was about how much this happens to people of color in particular, but to people all over our community. And how wrong that is. And if we leave oversight to the police solely to the police, these types of things will continue to happen.
Karma Is A …
So did you get involved in activism about this issue?
Yeah. That’s where I felt there was more productive work to be done. It was not about suing the city, but about coming together with local residents who had similar experiences, who had been fighting the same fight for years, and trying to do something about it.
So we held a series of community meetings with students and with members of the local community. And we protested. We marched on the police station, and were able to make some progress that way. At that point, if you wanted to file a complaint with the police, you had to go down between 9 and 5 during the work week, in person, to 1 Union Ave., and file a complaint on paper. Which is just absolutely ludicrous. They did put that complaint process online. And they also sped up the implementation of dashboard cameras.
When did you get involved in wanting to have a civilian review board?
So that was one of the things activists have been pushing for since the mid-’90s.
Then in 2013 [New Haven voters] passed a charter revision that said we have to create a [new, strengthened version of the] civilian review board, and the Board of Alders has to [carry it out]. It was the Board of Alders majority that asked for that [in the first place]. And yet, four years later, they haven’t done it. How do you feel about that?
It’s shocking. We should have a civilian review board by now. We should have one that is robust and independent.
Is that something you’re going to focus on as an alder?
That’s something I would like to focus on as an alder.
Is that a priority?
So why do you think it hasn’t happened, since the Board of Alders majority wanted it to happen?
Well, I think there was some confusion about subpoena power.
We can’t legally give it subpoena power. Some people say it will be toothless without subpoena power. We have a Police Commission that does have subpoena power. Some people say, “Why don’t we just call them the [civilian review board] and change the way it’s appointed to more reflect the community?”
The president of the Board of Alders also has subpoena power. I think there are ways to work with existing subpoena power.
Would you name the Board of Alders president to the body and have her subpoena people?
That would be one approach, or I think the [review] board could request a subpoena if they say, “Look, we have this particular case. We are missing testimony from this person. We need you — whoever it is they decide to be the go-to person for subpoena power — to bring this person in and compel them to testify.
So you’d have to hope for the cooperation of the board president?
Is that what you’re looking to do?
I know that some of the activists working on this are thinking along these lines, whether it’s the board president or another official.
How as a new alder would you make this happen? And do you feel it needs to have subpoena power?
I do feel that it needs to have subpoena power.
Why is that?
There’s no city that really has a perfect civilian review board. Every city has run into issues one way or another. But subpoena power has shown to give boards real teeth in trying to decide these types of cases and get testimony when it’s needed.
Same on being able to make recommendations based on the facts that have been collected, disciplinary recommendations for officers. So Newark’s [civilian review board], for example, is able to discipline an officer. And in the absence of a factual error, they can proceed with the recommendation.
What does that mean, “in the absence of a factual error”?
Let’s say the police commissioner says, “We reviewed these facts, and we think you’ve gotten something wrong in the fact-finding. Then we won’t proceed with the recommended discipline. Because we felt that there was an error in fact-finding.”
So are you looking to give the civilian review board power to discipline? Or to recommend discipline?
I think we need to have a conversation about both. But I think the model that Newark set up seems to be a good one. They need to be able to have teeth.
How are you going to make this happen as a freshman alder, one of 30?
You need 16 [votes] to get anything passed, right? You need to get buy-in from leadership. I think there are a number of folks who are really interested in seeing this happen and share the frustration that it hasn’t happened.
When you’re a freshman lawmaker, you have to come in with some humility. People who sincerely wanted to [make] this happen weren’t able to. It is a colossal failure of this board majority to go to all the trouble to ask [referendum voters] for power to do this, and then four years later aren’t able to pass it into law. So why would you be able to do it when, say, [Legislation Committee Chair] Jessica Holmes, who was very sincere about it, couldn’t?
I don’t want to make this about me or about any particular alder. There are ten new board members this year. A whole one-third of the board … new energy, new ideas. New approaches. So I’m hopeful that with that new cadre of folks, there’s an opportunity to push something like this through. It’s been long enough.
Click on or download the above audio file or the Facebook Live video below to listen to the full interview with Steve Winter on WNHH FM’s “Dateline New Haven.” The episode included discussion of being white while running for office in a largely black voting district; preserving affordable and cooperative housing; and his life story to date.