MERIDEN — Mayor Kevin Scarpati on Monday formally vetoed the establishment of a civilian review board to review incidents involving police use of force.
That veto came in a letter addressed to members of the council on Monday — exactly seven calendar days following its vote on Nov. 15 to implement the review board.
“I truly believe the councilors supporting the establishment of the CRB do think it is in Meriden’s best interest on Public Safety,” Scarpati wrote. He then stated he disagreed with that notion.
Scarpati outlined three reasons for disagreeing and issuing the veto: that it would negatively impact police officer recruitment and retention, that the council’s own Public Safety Committee could be utilized to provide further police oversight and that the proposal itself needs further vetting before being acted upon.
Scarpati wrote that attracting new officers had become “increasingly difficult.” He stated in his letter that the department’s recent success in recruiting a diverse workforce had come in part because many of the city’s newest hires have left other departments with existing review boards.
Despite the success of recent recruitment efforts the city’s police department “is currently experiencing a staffing shortage that has impacted our ability to fill proactive assignments, including the Neighborhood Initiative and Traffic units,” Scarpati continued.
Scarpati urged the council to consider amending the duties and responsibilities of its public safety committee to include review of use of force matters, which he described as a reasonable compromise. “This will ensure further oversight, as desired by this council, and that the committee continue to act on these matters, regardless of who sits as the chairperson,” he wrote.
Scarpati referenced an Oct. 13 meeting that included city council leaders and law enforcement leadership to answer questions about the review board and better understand officials’ concerns.
“At this meeting it was concluded by Majority Leader [Sonya] Jelks that it was clear further conversations and meetings were necessary. Those meetings never happened,” Scarpati wrote, inviting leaders to meet before the veto is acted upon.
“...While I do not believe this vote is a coincidence, falling just after the 2021 local election, let us prove this is not being done for political purpose and grandeur during this short lame duck window,” Scarpati continued.
According to the Meriden City Charter, the mayor has the power to veto any ordinance, resolution or budgetary appropriation passed by the council. That veto must be returned to the council within seven calendar days following the council’s vote on the matter in question.
To override a veto, the council would need to adopt a resolution for the override with the support of two-thirds of council members. That vote could occur during either a special meeting of the council as a whole or a regular meeting.
If the council’s previous 8-to-4 vote to adopt the review board is upheld by that expected override vote, the measure would still pass.
Attempts Monday to reach Jelks and Deputy Majority Leader Larue Graham were not successful.
Council Minority Leader Dan Brunet, who cast one of four votes against the review board, told the Record-Journal he wholeheartedly agreed with Scarpati’s reasoning for the veto, noting he had made similar points prior to the council’s vote to adopt the review board.
“I’m sure that a meeting to override the veto will be taking place,” Brunet said. “I don’t know when it will be.”
Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, was not able to say when a special meeting might be convened. Cardona said Jelks as majority leader would decide on how to proceed, while saying it was his understanding that a meeting would be scheduled.
Cardona, who chaired the study committee that recommended a civilian review board, disagreed with Scarpati’s reasons for vetoing the review board. On the issue that it would impact recruitment and retention, along with officer morale, Cardona said he would be open to officials sharing “solid research” to support that claim. The statements made to date around those claims have been largely anecdotal.
Cardona, who had retired from his occupation as a parole officer last year after serving 16 years in that role and four years as a correctional counselor in prisons, described the review board model as requiring more rigorous qualifications than those required to serve on the council or its Public Safety Committee.
For example, the review board model the council adopted stipulates several of its at-large members must have professional backgrounds that work with law enforcement: including retired criminal justice professionals, a retired city police officer, mental health professionals and legal professionals.
“I think it’s more stringent to be a member of the Civilian Review Board than the council,” Cardona said. “... I think the CRB codifies and makes that professional experience mandatory. If we’re going to do this, I prefer to do it right — with a little bit more stringent criteria to be a member of this committee.”
City Councilor Nicole Tomassetti said she was disappointed in Scarpati’s veto and the proposed compromise to bring police use-of-force under the Public Safety Committee’s purview.
“The whole point is for transparency,” Tomassetti said, adding having the council discuss those matters in closed-door executive session does not allow that transparency.
“The goal is to allow the public new insight into the process,” Tomassetti said, adding a concern she heard is that police officers “are the only people who can provide any insight or criticism of their behavior.”
But, she said, civilian oversight is not a new concept and taxpayers should have more insight into use-of-force matters. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Tomassetti said.
This story was updated to clarify that Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona is a retired parole officer. Cardona’s employment status was incorrectly stated previously.