MERIDEN — Before the Civilian Police Review Board can begin to deliberate on any complaints related to police use of force, its members must first undergo 40 hours of training.
The review board’s nine inaugural members met for the first time Wednesday in City Council chambers, with the majority of members attending in person and one member who participated remotely.
The purpose of the meeting, also attended by City Manager Tim Coon, Police Chief Roberto Rosado, Mayor Kevin Scarpati and Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona, was largely organizational. It included a review of the board’s scope of authority, selecting board leaders, and a brief description of the forthcoming training board members will need in order to carry out the charge detailed in a 2021 city ordinance that established the review panel.
Board members selected Evelyn Robles-Rivas as chairperson and Nancy Burton as vice chairperson.
Before selecting its leaders, board members each gave brief introductions. Some formerly served in law enforcement and one worked in the state’s attorney’s office, while other members currently work in or are retired from other fields, including public education, healthcare, social work, business and firefighting.
City officials reminded review board members that the body’'s scope of authority is limited to reviews of citizens' complaints related to police use of force and that the board’s findings are deemed advisory. The board, when a use-of-force complaint is received, is tasked with reviewing the police department’s completed Internal Affairs Division investigations of those complaints to determine the thoroughness, completeness, accuracy and objectivity of those investigations.
The board shall issue a finding that it either concurs or does not concur with the Internal Affairs investigation within 60 days of that complaint appearing on a posted meeting agenda, according to ordinance language. Failure to issue a finding within that time frame “shall be considered as a recommendation to concur,” according to ordinance language.
How often and when the review board meets will depend on whether it is referred any use-of-force complaints from the police department. Officials said they hope the number of referred complaints is zero.
In addition to reviewing complaints when they are received, the board is also tasked with making annual recommendations to the City Council. Such recommendations include potentially amending the board’s bylaws, recommendations related to the board’s “core functions,” and issuing policy recommendations to the city’s chief of police, according to city ordinance. That ordinance also states the board shall file annual written reports to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, with those reports including summaries of all complaints reviewed by the board within that year, along with written policy recommendations.
The board’s formation by the City Council in late 2021 came after a year-long study by a separate panel, called the Use of Force Study Committee, which recommended its establishment. Starting point or strict limit?
During elected officials’ discussion around a possible recommendation to revise the board’s scope of review, some disagreement emerged.
Cardona told board members that while there can be several categories of citizen complaints regarding the police department, the board’s purview is solely limited to those related to use of force.
Cardona said part of that was to ensure the board’s responsibilities are manageable, a lesson learned from the establishment of similar boards in other municipalities.
“These committees took on too much, too fast,” Cardona said. “What we wanted, the majority of the council wanted, was for this board to start slowly and incrementally.”
Cardona said if the board decides its role should expand to other complaint topics, it would be at the board’s discretion to recommend that expansion to the City Council.
However, the mayor urged caution before the board considers recommending any expansion of duties, and described Cardona’s description of a “slow start” for the board as somewhat of a misrepresentation.
Scarpati told board members that should they decide the board needs to review more than just use of force, it is still the City Council that has the discretion to determine whether or not to implement that recommendation.
Scarpati referred back to the Use of Force Study Committee’s previous deliberations, which had focused solely on use of force, and had looked at policies and procedures within that realm. He described the focus on use-of-force complaints as “very targeted.”
“I don’t believe that it was the purpose in the formation of this committee to do more than that,” Scarpati said. “I don’t believe it was to start out slow. And then begin to crawl, run and sprint to the point where you are overseeing matters that we heard concerns about from both our officers internally and from members of the public.”
Scarpati noted that the board’s establishment had been a controversial topic, and “was hotly contested.”
In fact, though not mentioned during Wednesday’s meeting, the review board was only established after the council narrowly overrode a mayoral veto to do so.
Scarpati said he believes the currently limited scope of authority was intentional and he urged the board to be cautious in its reports.
“The Use of Force Committee that vetted and recommended the formation of this was solely for use-of-force matters that impacted our community to the greatest extent,” Scarpati said. “And obviously we’ve seen detrimental impact throughout the nation that we never want to see happen here in Meriden. That was the sole purpose.”
Cardona maintained that the language around recommendations was specific.
“As the mayor stated, it’s a recommendation from the board to the council. The council is going to have to respond to that as they see fit,” Cardona said. Chief issues warning
Rosado, in response to board members’ questions, described the annual volume of complaints that the police department receives as “a very low number” when compared to the overall number of calls the department responds to annually. Rosado said the department responds to 48,000 service requests and may receive one to two use-of-force complaints in a given year.
Rosado impressed upon board members, “It’s important to do the right thing here,” adding Meriden police personnel “put their lives on the line. They do a lot of great things.”
“It can be impactful. You can hurt them. It can hurt the agency by not doing the right thing here. And morale can go down,” Rosado said, referencing declining numbers of law enforcement personnel around the state. He urged board members to be free of agendas, and said he is confident in the department’s established internal affairs procedures.
“I do trust their work,” Rosado said. “I do believe you will also trust their work and rely on their expertise and knowledge and believe they are very professional.”