MERIDEN — A police Civilian Review Board will be enacted following the City Council’s vote Wednesday night to override Mayor Kevin Scarpati’s veto against the measure.
The council’s vote occurred during a special hybrid in-person and remote meeting held in the council chambers of City Hall. Scarpati’s veto against creating a new chapter in the City Code to establish the review board was the lone action item listed on the meeting’s agenda.
Two-thirds of the 12 member council needed to vote in support of a veto override for the measure to pass. Council Majority Leader Sonya Jelks motioned for the override. Councilor Yvette Cortez, a Democrat, seconded that motion. After discussion, the measure passed by an 8-to-4 vote or two-thirds.
The discussion and the public comment that had preceded it included some criticisms levied directly at Jelks. Some of those who commented stated the majority of residents feel a review board and additional oversight is not necessary. Some members of the public and a few councilors portrayed the decision to hold a vote on the review board ordinance after the last election as politically motivated.
Jelks defended the proposal and the recent decisions. She said it is important for the council to recognize there are people, some among communities of color, who find it difficult to speak up, and who feel differently on that topic. She denied that the move had been politically motivated.
“We are here tonight not because there was a big desire to do a political move,” Jelks said, adding it was obvious the council had the votes to override the veto. She said it was her initial intention to hold a series of meetings to discuss not just the review board, but to discuss how every department, including police, can better serve the community.
“Unfortunately the conversation continues to center around the CRB and we have not been able to progress past those initial conversations,” Jelks said.
She referenced oft-raised discussion points: that only one meeting was held between council leaders and police leadership to discuss the board, and that the council hadn’t been on ride-alongs with police personnel.
“I think every member of the council body has had conversations with the chief directly as we have gone through these proceedings. We have been on multiple ride-alongs and tours of the police station. To say that we have not been involved, that we don’t know what they do, that we don’t respect the role that they do is just incorrect. And it’s very hurtful to say that. Just because we disagree with you does not mean that we disrespect them and that we don’t appreciate what we do in our community,” Jelks said. “But at some point in time, everyone has to have some accountability.”
Jelks said there will be other police chiefs after the department’s current leader, police Chief Roberto Rosado.
“We need a process that is standardized and that is a procedure that every officer who serves in his role will have to follow going forward. And that’s important. There should be not a change of leadership which changes how our policing is done. It really should be consistent, fair and just for everyone,” Jelks said.
Councilors who backed the proposal have said it would provide greater accountability and public awareness into the police use-of-force investigation process.
Jelks said the conversations won’t stop.
“We’re looking still to work directly with the chief and his staff,” she said, adding, “We can make the CRB be a process that works for all of us, that helps all of us, that protects all of us.”
During the council’s discussion that preceded, Jelks defended the decision to hold the special meeting at the time it was held.
Jelks said she had called the scheduling of the meeting based on the ability to have a quorum.
We The People Councilor Bob Williams Jr., who opposed the CRB, responded that he didn’t buy that statement. He shifted over to the issue of transparency, which he said was one of the items he had heard throughout the review board discussions.
Then he directed a question to Jelks: “Through the chair to Majority Leader Jelks, can I get your definition of transparency or whether there was a question of transparency with the Meriden Police Department?”
“First of all, let me make a statement through the chair,” Jelks said in response. “I take exception to being quizzed as if I were on trial. We have the ability to have our own opinions. I can ask you what your definition of what transparency is. I don’t think that that word is something specifically that you and I have had a discussion about. So I’m not sure why you’re asking me that question,” she said to Williams.
He responded he had asked that question because the language around transparency had come up multiple times. “No one can answer that,” he said.
“I would expect that when you’re hearing transparency from my perspective is that we have a police force that is open and transparent about the activities that occur within their normal duties and business,” Jelks replied. She described Rosado as an exemplary leader for the department.
“I don’t believe anybody has reflected on the previous leadership we had,” she said, referencing retired police Chief Jeffry Cossette. Jelks noted the same accolades about Rosado’s leadership could not be said about his predecessor.
“I am confused by the desire to forget so soon the issues we knew were occurring,” Jelks said. “And we knew this because we were receiving this information directly from the staff who many times had encouraged us to deal with issues that were occurring at the police department.”
Scarpati interjected that generalized discussion about transparency was the matter the council should be speaking about.
“We should really be speaking directly to the Civilian Review Board and use of force matters within the police department,” he said.
Williams followed with a plea to Democrats on the Council. “A CRB is not needed in Meriden,” he said. “It’s just not needed. I encourage you, each and every one of you to have the courage to do what’s right for our citizens and not a party.”
During the exchange that followed, Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona, said a lot of the talk around the review board included suggestions that support for such a board insinuated lack of support for police.
He said regardless of everyone’s opinion on that issue, every single member of the council supports the police.
“I think it’s disingenuous to make that argument,” Cardona said, noting the council has continued to support the police department’s funding and equipment requests. “I also remain supportive of this CRB.”
Jelks said it’s disappointing that disagreement over the board appeared to be an issue that supporters and opponents can’t seem to get past.
“Sometimes we do hard work that doesn’t make everybody happy. Unfortunately that’s the nature of our roles that we’re in,” Jelks said.
Jelks was disrupted by an audience member when she discussed the fact Meriden has 60,000 residents and not all voices had been heard from.
Scarpati struck his gavel in response to that disruption.
“I started the meeting by asking for decorum. I’m really not going to ask again,” he said. “Please, again, we listened to you. Whether we agree or disagree with what is being said, please maintain decorum as this is a business meeting of the council.”
After the council’s vote, Scarpati had a message for police personnel who attended the meeting.
“I can’t thank you enough for your sacrifice, your service to our residents and our community,” he said.
A day before the meeting, police had issued a news release notifying the public that an individual had distributed handwritten death threats to police. The pamphlets had been found strewn around Old Colony Road.
Scarpati described those threats as “sickening.” He then stated to police, “We support you.”
Scarpati continued with thank you’s to police leadership and to the community “for rallying behind our department.” Then he called for a vote on the veto override.
Chief Rosado, who attended the meeting but did not speak, declined to comment when a Record-Journal reporter approached him following the meeting’s adjournment.
During public comment, other current and former police did speak, including retired Police Chief Robert Kosienski Sr.
The former chief urged the council to reconsider an override of Scarpati’s veto. Kosienski said the city had a board of public safety in the past, which he said “became a political disaster.”
Kosienski said after time that the board had been abolished. He urged the council to ensure current police leadership are able to run that department “without the interference of politics” or other agendas.
The meeting itself was held with some concerns over whether the chosen venue was adequate given public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lea Crown, the city’s director of Health and Human Services, advised city leaders in an email the previous night, her recommendation was for everyone present to wear a mask over their nose and mouth regardless of whether they had been vaccinated against COVID-19 and to maintain a three-foot-distance inside the chambers and in the hallway. Crown also recommended that hand sanitizer be provided.
Crown recommended if those measures could not be maintained during the meeting that it be moved to a larger venue “so social distancing can be maintained.”