MERIDEN — The city received applications from at least 36 residents who sought to join the recently created Civilian Police Review Board.
Some of those applicants have worked in health care, are local business owners, social workers, educators and retired law enforcement officers. One applicant worked in the office of the Chief State’s Attorney.
The Record-Journal recently reviewed candidates’ applications, resumes, interview notes, correspondence among city officials and other documents related to the Civilian Police Review Board selection process. The documents were obtained through a request under the state Freedom of Information law.
The Civilian Police Review Board’s scope of authority is advisory only and limited to reviews of citizens’ use of force complaints. According to language in the city ordinance that established the board, those reviews would look at the police department’s own Internal Affairs Division investigations into complaints, in order to assess their “thoroughness, completeness, accuracy and objectivity.”
The board’s determinations would be shared with the City Council’s
Public Safety Committee, the police chief and the city manager.
The ordinance that established the unpaid board outlined that each of the four City Council area districts would have at least one member on the board and that the five other members would be at-large appointees, meaning they can be from anywhere in the city. The at-large members must be appointed from a designated group of professions. Those professions included criminal justice, law, education, mental health or health care, social worker, clergy and law enforcement officer who retired in good standing.
Nine of the 36 applicants have been selected, but are not yet confirmed by the City Council. Seven of those nine originally recommended appointees are Democrats. But, in order to comply with the state statute requiring minority political party representation on municipal boards, no more than six Democrats can serve.
So Mayor Kevin Scarpati on Thursday notified the City Council of a new recommendation to replace one of the originally recommended Democrats.
Scarpati named April Ouellette, owner of Tom’s Place restaurant in South Meriden, to replace Democrat Adam Enoch, as a recommended board member. Ouellette is politically unaffiliated.
Barring any objections from City Council members, the appointments of eight of the nine board recommended candidates will become official as of the council’s Sept. 19 meeting, per the rules of the council’s two-meeting vetting period. Ouellette’s nomination would become effective upon the council’s Oct. 3 meeting.
While the proposed makeup of the board is heavily Democratic leaning, records revealed a more evenly distributed mix of political backgrounds among the candidates who applied.
Applications the newspaper reviewed showed that 14 of the individuals who sought a seat on the board listed Democrat as their political party. Another 10 candidates were Republican. The 12 remaining applicants listed an affiliation with another political party, described themselves as politically unaffiliated, or did not name a political party affiliation.
The list of nominees is set to be vetted during a period that spans two City Council meetings. Whether the likely revision to that list could impact when that group is confirmed, potentially pushing back a vote to October, was not immediately clear.
The correspondence the Record-Journal reviewed showed that City Manager Timothy Coon crafted the initial set of questions to be asked of review board candidates. Coon shared those questions with Police Chief Roberto Rosado last January. After some exchanges those questions were referred to the interview panel, which would ultimately include Scarpati, Deputy Mayor Michael Cardona and City Councilor Bob Williams Jr.
The candidates interviewed were asked to explain their interest in serving on the review board, to detail their experience with the criminal justice system, to disclose their experience and relationship with the Meriden Police Department, and asked whether they had ever attended a civilian police academy. Interview subjects were also asked if they had prior experience adhering to formal policies around confidential personnel information and whether they would be able to maintain that confidentiality if appointed to the review board.
Further questions sought to determine whether candidates could commit to the 40 hours of initial training review board membership would require, along with a minimum of four hours of renewed training each year afterwards. Candidates were also asked for their views on the process of rendering a decision based on evidence and policies in cases that would have competing narratives.
Interviewees were also asked whether they would submit to a criminal background check and asked for their views regarding calls to defund police departments.
Interview notes showed varied answers to many of the questions, except one. No interviewee told the panel they supported defunding the police. Recommended members
Mark Dupuis, a former Republican town committee chairman, was among the candidates selected for appointment. Dupuis in stating his interest in serving on the board noted he had been formerly employed in the Chief State’s Attorney’s office.
Dupuis wrote he believed his professional experience “particularly qualified” him to serve on the board, stating he is familiar with the law around use of force and had read every single one of the reports stemming from the Chief State’s Attorney investigations into deadly police force over his 20 years having served in that office.
“I believe my insight and awareness into this process makes me well qualified to serve on the Civilian Review Board. As I am not an attorney, I will bring a layman’s perspective, but with the bonus of having worked closely with those who conducted these types of investigations,” Dupuis wrote. Democrat Paul Samuels, also recommended for the board, is a retired law enforcement officer, who is former commander of the Connecticut State Police Professional Standards Division.
Samuels, in his application for the review board, wrote that while in that role he had supervised “numerous internal police investigations.”
“My contribution would be as an impartial arbiter of the facts and circumstances of any matter brought before the commission,” Samuels wrote.
Margaret Hartman, a city resident and retired social worker who worked for the state Department of Children and Families, is another candidate recommended to the board.
Hartman, a Democrat, said one of the reasons why she applied for the board is because of its similarity to a position she once held with the state.
Hartman said while in that position she had “worked closely with police departments all over the state.” She described the Meriden Police Department as being one of the finest departments around. Hartman said she is impressed with the department’s collaboration with other agencies, like the mental health provider Rushford.
“I think people who are interested, if they’re interested for the right reasons, they want to do it the right way. It’s about, ‘Where do things break down?’” Hartman said. “It has nothing to do with police brutality. I don’t think we have a problem with police brutality in Meriden.”
Nancy Burton, a Democrat, was another one of the finalists named. Burton, a retired health care worker, wrote in her application that she was able to view the legal and criminal justice systems from both sides. She noted she is close to individuals who were employed in law enforcement and impacted by the criminal justice system.
Burton added she had seen the dysfunction that occurs within that system, describing herself as someone who has a “good handle on the complexities of these issues.”
“I am not someone who makes knee-jerk reactions to events. I look carefully at each event,” she wrote, noting that as a health care provider she has seen how misunderstandings related to complex health issues and decisions can play out.
“People often expect simple answers when the circumstances are not at all simple. There are real parallels in police work. Whoever sits on this board needs to understand that. We must remember we do not completely understand what a police officer faces at a time of crisis,” Burton wrote.
Enoch, the candidate initially recommended but replaced by Ouellette, listed his occupation as a social worker. In response to questions around Enoch’s experience with the city and its police department, Enoch stated he did not have any negative interactions, according to interview notes.
Panelist notes about Enoch’s response to another question regarding experience adhering to policies around maintaining confidentiality, noted maintaining confidentiality is “most important” in his current field of work.
Other candidates currently recommended include Democrats Evelyn Robles-Rivas, John Rush and Robert Rochette, along with William Rios, who is politically unaffiliated. Outspoken critic
Meriden resident, business owner and podcaster Joseph Vollano was among the candidates who interviewed for the review board, but were not recommended by the panel for appointment.
Vollano, who is also campaigning as a Republican for the 13th state Senate District seat, was vocal in opposing the board’s formation. That opposition extends back to the city’s formation in late 2020 of a Use of Force Review Committee, which had been tasked with researching and determining whether a civilian review board would be needed in Meriden.
The Record-Journal emailed Vollano, asking why he sought an appointment to the board. Vollano answered that and other questions a reporter emailed during his “Straight Talk with Joe Vollano” podcast recently.
Vollano stated he applied to the board for a simple reason.
“Do I believe it should exist? No. I’m a realist. I knew it was going to happen,” Vollano said, later adding he wants the board “to be fair.”
“I want everyone to have a fair shake,” Vollano said, later touting his experience with community policing, in particular the program in New Haven. “I thought I was an ideal candidate for the CRB.”
He said the list of nominees include “five hardcore leftists,” along with two moderate Democrats and a nominee he described as a “RINO” — Republican In Name Only.
“I applied because I felt it was the right thing to do to bring balance and to make sure things were done fairly. That board is not fair and equitable that’s there now,” Vollano said, adding the exchanges between himself and Cardona during the candidate interviews “did get a little contentious.”
Michael Zakrewski, a retired Meriden police captain and registered Republican, is another applicant who was interviewed, but did not receive the panel’s recommendation.
Zakrewski told the Record-Journal he felt he could bring the perspective of an officer who worked on reports related to officers’ use of force and said he would have brought a “pretty good insight on how the process works.”
Zakrewski said the panel tasked with recommending candidates “should continue to do their diligence, to make sure they get the best possible people on the board.”
He said it’s important that the board be apolitical. Selection process
Scarpati, the mayor, and other panel members described a selection process that was intentionally extensive and drawn out over months.
Scarpati said in determining the questions to be asked, the panel involved police leadership “as experts in the process.”
“So it was important that from the PD standpoint, that the questions we’d be asking would be appropriate as it pertains to roles and responsibilities,” Scarpati said, noting that at times throughout the process he had conversations with Rosado and with Meriden Police Detective Sgt. John Wagner, president of the police union.
As for the recommended appointees, Scarpati said the panel chose individuals they collectively felt were most qualified for the board.
Scarpati had previously opposed the board’s formation. He vetoed the measure last November. The City Council would later override that veto.
He understands there is still skepticism about the board’s function. But it is not a subject that comes up as frequently during conversations with members of law enforcement as it had nine months prior.
“I think they understand this is what is going to happen now,” Scarpati said, adding part of the conversation since has been showing members of law enforcement how seriously city officials take the board’s duties.
“It’s unlike any other board and commission. We want the people who serve on it to be trained to understand what our officers are going through in a use of force incident,” Scarpati said, adding that it is important to ensure the board’s implementation “moves forward in a responsible fashion.”
Cardona, like Scarpati, described the candidate selection process as unlike any other board or appointment he has been involved with during his experience on the council.
Cardona said he was pleased by the number of residents who expressed interest in serving on the board.‘Good balance’
Cardona acknowledged that the board still has its detractors, and that “skepticism will remain until this process plays out.”
He equated it to previous proposals requiring law enforcement officers to wear body cameras.
“Initially there was a lot of pushback from law enforcement. But as time went on, many in law enforcement appreciate having body cams, because it exonerates law enforcement in so many cases. The evidence is clear, the body cam is clear,” Cardona said. “The skepticism won’t go away until there is evidence that this board will be neutral and detached in terms of their assessment of the facts in the matter.”
Cardona and Williams both served on the Use of Force Committee that ultimately voted to recommend the establishment of the Civilian Police Review Board. Williams said he remains of the mindset that the city does not need the review board.
But, like Cardona and Scarpati, he has confidence in the candidates who were recommended for appointment.
“I think we’ve got a good balance of people that truly care about the city of Meriden,” Williams said, noting they have an open mind. No candidate appears to hold radical views against police, nor are they pro-law enforcement to a fault.
The training that will take place will help those residents who are confirmed as board members, Williams said.
“I think we’re doing everything we possibly can to have these board members be educated about their roles and their responsibilities,” Williams said.