EDITORIAL: No system of discipline

At a time when we’re seeing a national push for greater transparency and accountability in policing — with states including Connecticut and cities including Meriden taking serious steps to honestly rethink how the old ways might not be up to today’s challenges — a recent report by the Hearst Connecticut Media Group has shed some light.

Last month, Hearst published a report based on months of research into how local police departments in this state handle discipline for officer misconduct. One thing Hearst found after looking at hundreds of cases was that there really is no system; rather, there are 92 systems, one for each of Connecticut’s 92 municipal police departments.

Some of the departments are urban and employ hundreds of officers in a high-crime setting; others are rural and relatively bucolic, with fewer than 20 on the payroll.

The alleged misdeeds, logged between 2015 and 2020, also ranged widely — from failure to file a report, to improper use of force, to larceny — and were further complicated by the fact that the rules governing police conduct to a large extent go beyond the written law, with factors including union contracts, codes of conduct, department regulations and the possibility, as perceived by the top brass, that a disciplinary action could very well be reversed by a mediation board.

“Internal discipline is only as good as the rules,” Dan Barrett, legal director of the Connecticut Chapter of the ACLU, told Hearst. “The cops write those rules.”

It’s not surprising, then, that the report found that departments were reluctant to dole out a serious penalty, such as termination. In a small department, decisions may be made by the police chief, or even the town’s mayor. But even lesser penalties are handled largely in secrecy, through in-house proceedings that are shielded from public scrutiny, with little or no pressure to embrace transparency.

About three-quarters of the cases in the study in which charges were sustained led to a verbal warning, reprimand, counseling or order for more training; about one-quarter drew a suspension from duty; about 1 percent resulted in a firing.

This is not to say that more cops should be fired. Not at all. But the rarity of firings probably contributes to a public perception that the game is rigged in the officers’ favor.

Probably more important than who gets what penalty is the impression — which comes through clearly from a quick perusal of one chart in the report — that there is no consistency; that outcomes vary so widely from one department to the next that it’s clear there’s no statewide system of discipline for police officers. The public might well be more confident if there were statewide standards.

The chart shows that, of the departments surveyed, the rate of charges that were sustained ran from 17 percent to 83 percent. Newtown and New Canaan had very low “sustained” rates, down in the teens, while the percentage for Redding was in the 70s and Torrington was in the 80s.

Without analyzing the specific charges involved in these cases, it’s hard to make a comparison, but the issue doesn’t appear to be big city vs. small town: New Haven has a low “sustained” rate, Hamden a high one.

We seem to be in a time of change. With the whole nation trying to take a fresh look, for the past year and more, at how policing is done, maybe it’s time for our little state — with its charming and idiosyncratic form of local government — to put public safety on a more rational basis.

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