Cognitive dissonance? Thy name is the cops — or at least thy name is Connecticut’s finest.
The news of the last few months has served as a stark reminder of the culture of conflicts so prevalent in Connecticut’s police forces — both state and municipal. The picture that has emerged over the last several years — indeed over the last few decades — is that law enforcement authorities cannot be trusted to investigate themselves, especially if nepotism or politics are involved.
Last October an off-duty Windsor Locks police officer who had been drinking for six hours, crashed his car and fatally injured a young bicyclist. The officer’s father, a sergeant in the same department and president of the local police union, was briefly in charge of the crime scene. The young officer was eventually charged with manslaughter, while the father will face obstruction-of-justice charges. To make matters worse, the young man was only marginally qualified to wear the uniform, having struggled for a year to get his certification after being hired.
Earlier this month, the police union in Meriden asked state police to investigate whether the police chief in that city showed favoritism by going light on his son, an officer in the same force, after the latter was caught on video engaging in an apparent act of police brutality. Last week, we learned that the FBI is taking over the investigation.
Police and their advocates will tell you these types of incidents are isolated. If so, they’re not isolated enough.
Harken back to 2006, when a scathing report was issued by state and outside authorities on the internal affairs division of the Connecticut State Police. The 168-page report completed by then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal’s office and the New York State Police painted a picture of an Internal Affairs unit that was out of control and not doing its job. Authorities in whom we had invested our trust to police the police were either looking the other way or failed to follow-up on obvious leads. And often they were directed to do so by superiors.
At one troop, The Hartford Courant reported, “an ‘open competition’ existed among some troopers over who could make the most drunken-driving arrests on the midnight shift” — with little care given as to whether the arrests were legitimate or not. Not surprisingly, Internal Affairs failed to properly investigate this matter as well.
And sometimes internal affairs investigations become politicized and vindictive. Many Northwest Corner residents recall the case of Mark Lauretano, the Salisbury resident state trooper who was the subject of an internal probe into his handling of the investigation of an alleged rape in 1997 at the Hotchkiss School.
Lauretano was suspended for two months without pay, removed as the town’s resident trooper and transferred. During the investigation, Lauretano was gagged by a state police media policy while his superiors bellyached to the press about his character and alleged incompetence. Thankfully, Lauretano challenged the media policy in federal court and won on First Amendment grounds while collecting a $450,000 out-of-court settlement and winning his old job back.
It goes without saying that you can’t trust any organization to investigate itself properly and fairly. The police have an obvious conflict of interest in having their IA divisions look into allegations of misbehavior. And not only because investigators are reluctant to report unflattering truths to their superiors.
I have a relative who worked a relatively short stint in Internal Affairs for a big-city police department. He said good, honest Internal Affairs investigators are typically detested by the rank-and-file. When Internal Affairs officers walk into a roomful of cops, silence is the order of the day, often followed by baleful glances.
It stands to reason that the best way to avoid being treated as a pariah by crooked fellow cops is for the Internal Affairs officer to gain a reputation as someone who won’t look seriously into allegations and complaints. Case in point: it took an outside investigative agency in this case, troopers from neighboring New York to expose the appalling chicanery in the Connecticut State Police Internal Affairs unit.
Some big cities have civilian review boards that look into allegations of police misconduct. But that’s not a perfect situation either, as board members are tempted to politicize the process in an attempt to make a name for themselves. Or in some cases, they’re insufficiently informed about police procedures.
How about forming a state agency, separate from the state police and headed by the lieutenant governor — who, to my knowledge, has nothing else to do anyway — whose charge is to look into major allegations of police malfeasance as they arise?
Look, no solution to this problem is perfect. But telling the cops to investigate themselves isn’t just unfair to us; it isn’t even fair to the police.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.