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OPINION: Civilian police review boards needed

OPINION: Civilian police review boards needed

On Feb. 8 of last year, around 5 a.m., a police SWAT team raided a Meriden family’s apartment based on a search warrant for an unrelated drug suspect. Police found no drugs in the apartment and made no arrests. Turned out the occupants “were not the wanted individuals.” The family is suing the city, the Meriden Police Department and the chief of police, claiming psychological trauma and physical injuries.

On Feb. 5 of this year, around 5 a.m., New Britain and Southington police raided a Southington motel, based in part on information from Facebook, using a dog and an armored car and looking for a fugitive murder suspect. A man with the same name as the fugitive was staying there with his wife and two minor children. A detective later realized that they had the wrong man; the real suspect remained at large. The family has filed an intent to sue the Southington and New Britain police departments.

Welcome to the information age — with a few qualifications.

First: Police work takes time, and there can always be a delay between the time a warrant is issued and the time of a raid, putting into question who is actually living in an apartment or house. Likewise, information gained through social media can send police in the wrong direction.

Second: The public generally (and for obvious reasons) has no idea what their police are up to and where they get their leads. And when something goes wrong, as in the cases above, police departments are often very reluctant to release much information. Thus it can take months — even years — before a request under the Freedom of Information Act uncovers the truth.

Third: And yet, the idea of any kind of civilian police review board seems to be anathema to police brass, here and elsewhere. Generally, only larger cities have them. (I could find none in Connecticut.)

But what other profession with life-or-death responsibilities is left to regulate itself? Even hairdressers and tattoo artists have to be licensed, and the state has an investigations unit for complaints about health care practitioners, who are licensed to help people.

What about cops, who are authorized, if necessary, to shoot people? Why should they be supervised only by other cops? What if — just for instance — a Meriden police officer whose father happened to be the chief pushed a suspect unnecessarily, which led to a severe head injury and an excessive-force lawsuit (the terms of which were kept secret), and an expensive investigation commissioned by the city, and an FBI investigation, which led to a 14-month federal sentence for said officer?

Should that have been handled in-house? Or might a civilian review board have done it fairly but quicker, and maybe cheaper?

And what if a Cheshire officer had been under special instructions by his chief to stay away from a certain civilian employee in the same department, and was even ordered to keep his body camera on if it became necessary for him to interact with her? And what if this situation had been allowed to continue for years and was only revealed through an FOIA request?

Isn’t there a better way to handle such things? As the Roman poet Juvenal asked, about 2,000 years ago, “Who will guard the guardians?”

Reach Glenn Richter at