Police commissioners voted to adopt two new rules about how officers should respond during active shooter situations and during large public protests.
They also voted to withhold those two new rules from public view and consideration, leaving at least one local activist wary of what to expect from the police during the next peaceful demonstration downtown.
That was the result of Tuesday night’s regular monthly meeting of the Board of Police Commissioners on the third floor of the police headquarters at 1 Union Ave.
The commissioners voted unanimously to adopt two new general orders: one about police strategy around active shooter situations, one about police strategy around crowd control and management.
Before voting on the orders, the board unanimously agreed to discuss the orders’ contents and merits in executive session (i.e. in private, without the presence of media or members of the public).
Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act law allows for five exceptions to meetings that otherwise must remain public. Public meetings can go into executive session to discuss individual officers or employees; strategies or negotiations regarding pending litigation; public safety and security concerns; real estate discussions that, if made public, may adversely affect the price of a lease, sale, or purchase; or discussion of any matter that would result in the disclosure of a public record that is exempt from disclosure.
On Tuesday night, commissioners cited the third reason, public safety, for going into executive session to discuss these new orders. Michael Wolak, the city’s senior assistant corporation counsel, said that the orders involve “investigatory techniques not known to the general public.”
“There are things in there that would put people at risk if they knew what the police were doing,” he said.
Asst. Chief Racheal Cain said that, even after the orders were voted on, signed by the chief, and adopted by the department, they would not be made available to the public.
“The contents of the general orders are confidential because they’re tactical in nature,” she said.
Chief Anthony Campbell said that, while he could not disclose any details as to the strategies included in either order, he could confirm that they both arose in response to training the department already had in place.
Campbell said the department drafted an active shooter order in response to tactical concerns experienced by police forces around the country in response to a wave of lethal mass shootings, from San Bernardino, California to Parkland, Florida.
“We’ve been doing this realistically since Columbine,” he said, “but we are trying to make sure that we have a general order in place to cover everything that we do.”
He said the department wants to have formalized documentation regarding officer responses to active shooter situations so that “in the future, should there be any issues, you’ve got legal backing as to why you did what you did. Not simply saying, ‘It was in line with our training.’ You need to have some documentation as to what your training is.’”
As for the crowd control and management general order, Campbell said the department wanted formal documentation describing the new training the department has put in place over the course of a year that has seen a number of high profile public protests.
In September 2017, commissioners updated two standing general orders with allowances for a new 100-officer crowd control unit to be equipped with bigger pepper-spray battles, larger batons, and new crowd control training.
The department formed the crowd control unit in the wake of confrontations in Charlottesville, Seattle and San Francisco between white supremacists and anti-fascists, as well as after two local downtown protests with controversial police responses: one in February 2017, during which police arrested two protesters during an anti-Trump rally that blocked portions of Route 34; and one in July 2017, when counterdemonstrators clashed with a right-wing group called the Proud Boys.
“We’ve done crowd control through posts in the academy and usually that was it,” Campbell said about crowd control training to the present. “But we found that we were having more incidents on the green. As things that are happening nationally start happening at a smaller scale [in New Haven], we want to address those issues.”
When asked why he thought the crowd control general order should remain invisible to public view, Campbell said, “Anything, whether it’s crowd control, active shooter, responding to banks, responding to anything that deals with tactics, you don’t lay your cards out on the table for the ‘bad guys,’ as we like to say in police jargon, to have a floor plan of exactly what you’re going to do. That not only can be detrimental to your progress in fighting crime, but it can be an officer safety issue.”
Patricia Kane, a civil rights lawyer who has represented a number of activists arrested by the New Haven police, expressed skepticism after the meeting of the department’s reasons for keeping the crowd control order secret.
“If I’m planning a protest,” she said, “I want to know what kinds of things the police are prepared to do, what kinds of instances will set off what actions. When will they start tasing people? When will they take out the drones?”
She said the vast majority of New Haven protests are nonviolent, and that police responses to nonviolent protests in the past have been “terribly uneven,” with officers exhibiting “emotional, disorganized, and aggressive” behavior.
She said one key takeaway from the Charlottesville protest last year, which resulted in a white supremacist plowing a car into a crowd of anti-fascists and killing one of the counterdemonstrators, should be that the police need to separate opposing groups more quickly during a contentious public demonstration.
“How does it hurt the public to know that when there’s a crowd situation, the police are going to separate the two groups?” Kane asked. “I want to know that the police are going to protect my people, because my people are not going to fight. If there’s a menacing group, I want the police to step in.”
“We should be looking at the police behavior,” Kane continued, “not the crowd behavior.” She said the police have become so used to secrecy that they fail to recognize a prime opportunity to communicate with the public about how they plan to keep all parties safe.