(Updated): Board of Alders leaders won’t oppose the idea of a Civilian Review Board (CRB) issuing subpoenas to cops it investigates.
But the alders won’t formally endorse that power in the text of a new city law scheduled for a final vote Monday.
So said Amity / Beaver Hills Alder and Board of Alders Majority Leader Richard Furlow on Thursday night after a closed-door, two-hour-and-ten-minute Democratic Party caucus meeting on the second floor of City Hall.
Under discussion at the private caucus meeting was the latest draft of an ordinance to create a new version of the CRB. Voters approved a 2013 charter referendum that called on the alders to create a new version with more power; that has proved to be a long and controversial process.
The latest proposed ordinance is on the Board of Alders agenda for a second reading and final vote at next Monday’s full board meeting. The vote has been delayed over activists’ demand that the CRB have subpoena power and leading alders’ concerns that state law might not allow them to include that power. Until this week alders said they were receiving conflicting legal information on whether state law allows for it.
See below for a statement from one of those activist groups, calling on the alders to delay Monday’s vote.
Furlow said on Thursday night that the alders cannot grant the CRB subpoena power, because, alders now acknowledge, state law determines that right.
And what does state law say? According to this 2015 memo written by city Corporation Counsel John Rose, the CRB would indeed have subpoena power per authority granted by the state legislature’s Special Act of 1899.
“The Civilian Review Board,” Rose wrote in the memo, “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.”
“I don’t think he’s wrong,” Furlow said about Rose’s opinion on Thursday. However, he noted, there is no case law to support this interpretation of state law.
He said alders would not fight against a CRB exercising its state-given right to issue subpoenas, but that the courts would ultimately have to decide on the validity of that authority if the city were to be sued.
Furlow added that the alders do not need to add any explicit endorsement of the CRB’s right to subpoena power in the city ordinance.
“We don’t need to make a decision in regards to subpoena power,” he said.
“We don’t have to take a position,” he continued, “because of the special act” of 1899.
Furlow said the alders’ interpretation of state law as granting subpoena power to the CRB is not a deviation from what he or his colleagues thought several weeks ago, despite recent postponements to scheduled votes on the CRB ordinance after activists filled the Aldermanic Chambers and demanded that the alders amend the ordinance to explicitly include subpoena power.
Furlow said those delays were not because of confusion over whether or not the CRB should have subpoena power, but because alders still needed to review various amendments submitted by their colleagues. At least one of those amendments, from Newhallville / Prospect Hill Alder Steve Winter, explicitly endorses the CRB’s right to subpoena power unless that right is prohibited by state law.
Furlow said the alders are still finalizing an amendment that will be considered alongside the CRB ordinance on Monday night. He said the draft of the amendment will be finished and available for public consumption by the end of Friday.
As for what was said during Thursday night’s two-hour-plus, closed-door Democratic caucus meeting, which 17 alders attended? The alders discussed policy and procedural details regarding the CRB ordinance and other items up for a vote at Monday’s full board meeting, according to Furlow.
“It’s a discussion, not a debate,” Furlow said about the private caucus meetings. All 30 alders are registered Democrats, though two alders, Downtown’s Hacibey Catalbasoglu and Newhallville / Prospect Hill’s Steve Winter, won their respective aldermanic races as unaffiliated candidates.
Connecticut law grants alders and other elected officials the right to meet privately and talk about whatever they want away from public view so long as the elected officials are all members of the same political party.
Unlike executive session portions of public meetings, which public officials can use only on specific occasions, single party caucus meetings offer unrestricted opportunities for public officials of the same political party to discuss whatever they want in private. In a city like New Haven, where every alder is a Democrat or caucuses with the Democrats, that means that the entire board can, and does, get together to talk about whatever they’d like for as long as they’d like, all in private.
“City Needs To Be Clear” On Subpoena Power
As the alders deliberated in private inside Meeting Room Three on the second floor of City Hall Thursday night, CRB subpoena proponent Kerry Ellington and a half-dozen other strong CRB activists waited in the hallway outside. In recent weeks, Ellington and dozens of other representatives from community groups like People Against Police Brutality have filled the Aldermanic Chambers in protest of legislation that did not explicitly give or acknowledge the CRB’s right to issue subpoenas.
Before the alders entered their private caucus on Thursday, the activists tried a quieter tactic to influence the alders on the issue. They gave the alders a basket of oranges and pretzels.
“We’re trying the kindness route,” the New Haven Resistance Choir’s Laurie Sweet said with a smile.
Ellington was less sanguine after learning that Furlow and his colleagues are reluctant to include a specific reference to the CRB’s right to issue subpoenas in the city ordinance itself.
“The city needs to be clear in whether or not it’s going to support this body,” Ellington said. By not making any reference to the CRB’s right to issue subpoenas and by silently deferring to state law, she said, the alders would be abdicating their responsibility to inform the public on where they stand on such a pivotal issue.
“We want an affirmation that the city is going to acknowledge that power and not challenge it,” she said.
Below is a statement written and submitted by CRB activist Jenny Tumas on Friday afternoon.
Dear President Walker-Myers and the Board of Alders,
We are writing to urge that the vote on the CRB be delayed until a number of remaining details are ironed out. The residents of this city need and deserve a real Civilian Review Board, and we need your political courage to make that happen.
Firstly, through our conversations with various Alders, we understand that the Board of Alders has now come to the conclusion that the Civilian Review Board legally can and will have subpoena power. As has always been our position, subpoena power is absolutely necessary for the CRB to be a true mechanism of accountability.
However, we have now learned that the Board of Alders plans not to explicitly affirm the CRB’s power to issue subpoenas and that subpoena power will not be written into the ordinance. We cannot rely on unofficial accounts and ‘implied powers’ when it comes to such a key aspect of the CRB. Subpoena power must be written into the ordinance. The fact that state law permits the CRB to have subpoena power does not absolve the city government of the responsibility to write an ordinance that clearly explains the specific powers and responsibilities of the Civilian Review Board. Further, we have seen no legal reasoning that explains why subpoena power should not be written into the ordinance. Now that you have come to the conclusion that subpoena power is legal, it needs to be written into the ordinance and we demand a delay until this issue is resolved.
Secondly, the staffing mechanism laid out in the current proposal is not adequate to ensure that the CRB will have the resources it needs to be able to investigate misconduct. The CRB needs to have an investigator on staff, not a contractor. Requiring that members of the CRB vote before contracting an investigator adds unnecessary layers of bureaucracy, subjects the CRB to unnecessary fiscal and budgetary volatility, and ultimately makes it less likely that the CRB will be able to investigate complaints. There is still work that needs to be done to iron out the most effective staffing for the CRB, from both an investigatory and fiscal standpoint.
Thirdly, exclusively using the Community Management Teams to select members of the Civilian Review Board does not guarantee the independence of the CRB that the Charter demands. Civilian Review Board need to be drawn from representative neighborhood-based organizations, a pool wider than New Haven’s Community Management Teams. The vitality of CMTs varies significantly across neighborhoods, and many Community Management Teams have complex and disqualifying connections to alders, police, and neighborhood watch organizations.
Fourthly, the language in the preamble that states “WHEREAS, it is the unique power and privilege of police officers acting within the scope and course of their employment in these departments to use force, even deadly force, in making arrests” is dangerously vague, unnecessary, and legally incorrect.
These remaining issues are significant and threaten the legitimacy of the CRB as an independent body. We demand a delay in the vote until these issues are resolved. That said, these issues are not insurmountable. The last few months have shown that we can improve the proposal when the Board of Alders works in collaboration with residents and community organizers. We urge you to continue working with us to resolve these outstanding problems with the current proposal.
People Against Police Brutality