Meriden officials consider sweeping changes to promote racial equity



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MERIDEN — Amid nationwide unrest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, city leaders are proposing a wide-range of additions to Meriden’s anti-discrimination policies.  

The council will hold a meeting Wednesday to discuss a resolution with wide-ranging pro-equality and anti-discrimination action items  — including establishing a “racial equity council” that would consider the racial impact of future council resolutions and mandating cultural diversity training for all city employees. 

In the resolution, city leaders joined many others across Connecticut by taking a public stand against racial discrimination. But city officials acknowledged that actions will speak louder than words. 

“The intent was to make it action-oriented and not just a written document that says we stand for equality, equity, and justice,” said council Majority Leader David Lowell, a Democrat. “While that’s true, there is a lot of meaning in (someone saying), ‘If that’s true, City Council, show us through your actions what you could be doing differently and better.’ ”

The resolution currently lists eight action items and leaves the door open for more in the future.

Those eight items are: the mayor and City Council would take a new oath of office that would include a commitment to support racial equality; the mayor and council would develop standards for assessing the  “racial impact” of council resolutions prior to passage; the city would establish a “cultural diversity and racial equity council” by Sept. 1; the city would prioritize proactive diversity recruiting and hiring practices so that city staff reflect the diversity of the city population; the city would “proactively communicate and be transparent and responsive on all reported issues of discrimination” findings; all city employees and elected officials would participate in racial equity and cultural diversity training as part of training requirements; all members of the police department would participate in initial and ongoing mandatory racial-bias training programs; and the police department would track and report racial equity-centered statistics as part of its report to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

Democrat Sonya Jelks called the resolution a good “first step” in “looking at ways in which we can truly be agents of change around racial discrimination and police brutality.”

The public will have a chance to weigh in at a virtual meeting scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. The council voted Monday to refer the proposal to what’s called the Committee of the Whole, a subcommittee made up of all council members. The committee can revise the resolution before sending it back to the council for final approval.

Here are some things to know about the resolution.

How to comment

In addition to emailing councilors ahead of the meeting at councilcomment@meridenct.gov, residents will be able to submit written comments during the meeting using the “Q and A” feature of the Microsoft Teams software the city uses to hold virtual meetings. Residents can also call into the meeting by dialing 888-632-3385 (conference ID number is 94555).

Those who call in to comment will be given three minutes, Lowell said.

Nearly without input

The current iteration of the resolution was conceived through discussions among the council’s Democratic caucus last weekend as protests formed across the country. Many of the items have been brought up in the past.

Council Minority Leader Dan Brunet, a Republican, said his caucus received a copy of the Democrats’ proposals on the morning of the June 1 council meeting.

Some councilors initially wanted to vote to adopt the proposal at the June 1 meeting. That would have meant voting without much public input.

“There was no intent to rush something through for the purposes of not having additional input,” Lowell said. “There was an intent not to sit on something that we all agreed needs to be an active subject in the community.”

Others, including Brunet, said more time was needed for review, and the councilors ultimately agreed it should be vetted at the committee level.

“This resolution is very important to all of the residents in Meriden,” Republican Michael Carabetta said. “… I think it deserves everybody’s input, and I think it really, truly deserves to be the best that it can be.”

Citizen review board

Some councilors support a citizen review board, which would act as an independent civilian oversight panel for the police department.

Currently, the council’s Public Safety Committee is the closest thing to an oversight board. The committee typically meets quarterly to receive the department’s reports and also take up any public safety-related resolutions referred by the council.

Committee chairman Michael Cardona, a Democrat, is among those who want to explore a citizen review board.

“I would want it to be a serious board where the board members had training and there was some professionalism in regards to the criteria to get on that board,” Cardona said.

More research needs to be done first though, Cardona cautioned, because there may be some “legal limitations” that would undermine the authority of an independent review board.

Racial breakdowns of police data

In recent months, Cardona has been asking Police Chief Jeffry Cossette to provide more in-depth racial breakdowns for various statistics in his quarterly reports to the Public Safety Committee, including arrest figures.

Cardona commended Cossette on his most recent report last month and plans to keep pushing police administration to provide as much information as possible. One of the action items in the proposed racial equity resolution calls for tracking and recording of “racial equity-centered statistics.”

“I want to see what data is currently being collected, and then why isn’t certain data being collected,” he said.

Different obstacles can make it hard for police to fill in all the gaps when reporting demographic breakdowns. At last month’s committee meeting, for example, Cardona noticed Cossette’s breakdown of arrest numbers included whites, blacks, Indians, and Asians, but not Hispanics. The U.S. Census Bureau and other governmental agencies classify “Hispanic” as an ethnicity, not a race.

Cossette explained that breaking numbers down by ethnicity to separate out Hispanics, classified as white, is difficult because officers can’t ask, so “everything is done by observation.” Collecting ethnicity data can be done, Cossette added, but would require additional legwork and may not be as accurate as race data.

Roughly 27% of Meriden’s population is categorized as Hispanic or Latino in data reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.

New police chief

The City Council’s close look at anti-discrimination policies comes just as the city prepares to hire a new police chief to replace Cossette, who is leaving at the end of June after 15 years as chief.

The city’s Police Chief Search Committee recently conducted its first of two rounds of interviews, narrowing the field from 13 to five finalists. Cardona, who sits on the search committee, said relations between police and minority communities have always been an area of focus.

“With the direction that we as a country have been going in,” said Millie Torres-Ferguson, another member of the search committee, “I think it’s important for the incoming police chief to know how important this is to our community.”

The Meriden Police Department issued a statement this week condemning the actions of the four Minneapolis officers involved in the killing of Floyd. The department also said it “stands with its community against racism and police brutality” and called on the public to unite and work with police to address discrimination.

“We further acknowledge that the police and minority communities throughout the United States have a long history of strained relations, and that the police have not always gotten it right,” the statement read. “We, the Meriden Police Department look at the tragic death of George Floyd as an opportunity for positive change. Let’s build upon the trust and relationships that we have forged within our community.”

Brunet said Meriden has already taken a number of steps to enhance transparency, including through the use of drones and body cameras.

“The city, in general, has a good track record when it comes to police issues,” Brunet said. “… I’m not sure how much farther we can expand on current policies.”

The police department provides officers with procedures on how and when to use force. In incidents where force is used, officers are required to document and submit reports, which administrative staff are then required by state law to review, along with body camera footage.

Police recently put out a statement explaining how use-of-force cases are reviewed in light of a video that circulated on social media showing officers forcibly removing a driver from her vehicle after she refused to get out during a traffic stop. After the driver is removed, officers are seen placing their knees on the driver’s shoulder blades as she lay face down on the street and they attempt to handcuff her.

The administrative review concluded the incident was “within the parameters set by our agency,” the police statement read. The statement noted the driver actively resisted arrest by “flailing about” on the ground as officers tried to handcuff her.

“Once officers secure the suspect all force was immediately ceased and the suspect was safely placed into a vehicle and removed from the scene,” the statement read.

A copy of the department’s use-of-force policies could not be found on the city’s website.

Racial equity council

The idea to establish a “racial equity council” is still being worked through, but Lowell envisions the body will be responsible for assessing the possible racial impact of proposals taken up by the City Council.

Lowell said that while councilors already informally consider possible racial equity impacts in the decision-making process, “I think we can do better and do more by calling it out and saying, ‘Has our racial equity council looked at this?’ and look at it with a set of standards or metrics.”

The city already has a Human Rights Advisory Board. The board, however, hasn’t been active in recent years — the board’s last meeting minutes posted to the city’s website are from October 2016.

Lowell said it may make sense to “rebrand” the human rights board as a racial equity council to “be more current to today’s issues.”

“We don’t just want to invent additional councils or committees,” he said. “If we’ve got something that has (racial equity) as part of its scope, let’s redefine it, give it a new life and a new mission. If it needs membership, give it membership, empower them to have a role, and make sure we acknowledge that they’re active and that they’re utilized because that’s important.”

mzabierek@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @MatthewZabierek



Committee of the Whole agenda, instructions for attending.
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