MERIDEN — The city will never have an incident like the death of George Floyd if the Use of Force Review Committee has any say in it.
But how would a group of civilians go about addressing citizen complaints about police use of deadly force?
And does Meriden really need such a board?
The eight-member review committee has begun addressing these questions.
City leaders formed the board last summer in response to the killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, during his arrest by a Minnesota police officer. His death sparked protests and calls for reform nationwide. The board is essentially a committee to study whether Meriden needs another committee — one charged with actually reviewing police use of force — and to suggest how the latter panel might work.
Committee members discussed the issue during an hourlong meeting Monday. Mayor Kevin Scarpati said that the City Council felt it might be unneeded, but worth studying, when the council unanimously approved a resolution on July 20.
"I didn't look at it as a definite and I know other councilors did not look at it as a definite," Scarpati said. "I do think it's worth a discussion."
The resolution states, “The City Council and Mayor shall appoint a study committee to review and propose standards for a commission of police accountability for use of force. The committee would define the purpose and scope of the authority and propose a recommendation for Council in six months.”
The committee shouldn’t backslide, committee member Sharlene Kerelejza said.
“There is enough reason to respect the community and the concerns around police use of force to do our homework,” Kerelejza said.
Committee Chairperson Nicole Tomassetti, who read the resolution aloud, disagreed with Scarpati.
“I don't see that as determining the need for a use of force board. I see it as reviewing and proposing the standards,” Tomassetti said. “I think that's something that we need to nail down.”
There are various legal opinions as to whether civilian review boards are legal in Connecticut, city Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn said. The committee’s job is to examine the City Charter, state law, other municipal practices, among other things, he said.
“You could study the issue and decide that you don’t think it’s appropriate for Meriden,” Quinn said.
Councilors have walked a thin line since Floyd’s death set off protests against police violence in Meriden and statewide. They wanted to reassure the city’s minority communities of their safety and that things would change while also avoiding the implication that Meriden police need more oversight. The council condemned racism and police brutality in one statement and passed a resolution saying that the proposed reforms weren’t an indictment of the department in another.
As of June, Meriden police's Internal Affairs Division had investigated 11 use of force complaints since 2018. Of those, one complaint, in 2019, was upheld, with discipline issued. People involved in four other complaints were exonerated, after administrative review. Four more complaints were withdrawn and two ruled unfounded, police have said.
Meriden police typically make about 2,100 arrests annually. They handle 23,000 calls for service annually and 44,400 self-initiated tasks, including motor vehicle stops, building checks, administrative details and special patrols, according to a report police wrote for the council.
The review board has a broad subject to pursue and a lot of information to digest, and it is off to a good start, Tomassetti said.
"I don’t necessarily think that there was a lack of knowing what to do," she said of the committee’s first meeting. "I think it is more an issue of finding where to start."
Committee member Kim Fisher, president of the Meriden-Wallingford NAACP, said she also thought the board began well. The board must move forward and make recommendations for the full council, she said.
“You still have to have your finger on your pulse. You want to be ready when if, God forbid, it occurs here," she said Wednesday. "We want these conversations to keep going and moving ahead because if they're not, we aren't going anywhere."
Board members named Tomassetti the board chairperson and Councilor Bob Williams Jr. the vice chair on Monday. The other board members are attorney Ronald Weller; Holly Wills; social workers Sharlene and Natacha Kerelejza, who are married, and Meriden police Lt. John Mennone, who represents the department.
Wills heads the city’s Council of Neighborhoods. Sharlene Kerelejza is the former executive director of Chrysalis, a local domestic abuse shelter.
They are a good group for the job, Fisher said.
Looking ahead, Quinn will research whether the City Charter and the police union contract would allow a review board to address internal affairs investigations and complaints and what framework it could work within.
The charter allows only the police chief to discipline officers, former Police Chief Jeffry Cossette has said, but Quinn implied that Cossette’s statement, made months ago, might have been wrong.
“I think that the former police chief might have been making a broader statement that he felt that this committee would infringe upon the police chief’s powers as granted by the charter,” Quinn said.
Current Police Chief Roberto Rosado, who was sworn in on July 1, has said he supports forming the accountability board. Rosado believes there are already sufficient layers of oversight in place, but, he added, “the more eyes the better.”