HARTFORD, CT — Police agencies in Connecticut routinely make it difficult for members of the public to access basic and legally-required information about how to file complaints of police misconduct, according to a new study from the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
Drawn from online research and telephone surveys, ”Earning Trust: Addressing Police Misconduct Complaints in Connecticut,” shows that many police agencies fail to clearly post their complaint policies and complaint forms online, and refuse to accept anonymous complaints.
The study adds that many police departments include threats of prosecution in their complaint intake protocols. In some cases, these obstacles violate state law and statewide police policy, according to the study.
“Community members who wish to alert their police departments to misconduct should find open doors, not mazes of red tape and intimidation,” study supervisor David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, said.
“Unfortunately, many people seeking to file police complaints in Connecticut will be unable to find information from their local departments. Others will encounter misinformation or intimidation,” McGuire added.
“These violations of state law and policy are unacceptable and disappointing,” McGuire continued. “Transparent, accessible police complaint procedures build public trust, which improves public safety. Police departments that stonewall concerned community members are missing out on an important chance to better serve themselves and our state.”
Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, who is president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said he felt “frustrated” by the ACLU report.
“I’m not saying my department or any department is perfect,” Salvatore said. But he added that he thought there was a “difference” between the ACLU doing what he termed a “survey” versus somebody calling a department to actually file a “complaint.”
Mike Lawlor, the state’s under secretary for criminal justice policy and planning, said on Monday that he’s had the opportunity to study — and talk over — the ACLU report with several police chiefs.
“Clearly, not everybody is with the program yet,” Lawlor said. “We are using data to help in our research more than we ever have before. While that data may be embarrassing, if there is a problem we need to fix it.”
One of the responses Lawlor and McGuire have heard from police departments is that when the ACLU made its cold calls that they sometimes didn’t talk to the right person at the department.
Lawlor said that’s not a good enough defense. “Everybody is supposed to say the right thing,” Lawlor said, who added it will take time for all departments to both understand and comply with the law.
“It’s one thing to change the law,” Lawlor said. “It’s another to enact it.”
McGuire, like Lawlor, also said police departments need to try to address, rather than explain away, the ACLU findings.
“If police departments are serious about improving community trust, they will follow Connecticut’s existing complaint law and support legislative changes to improve the complaint process statewide,” McGuire said.
“There should be no wrong door for someone seeking information about a police department’s complaint process,” McGuire said. “Community members seeking to file a complaint should receive accurate information, no matter who answers the phone at a police department.”
McGuire added: “We are glad to hear that some departments have updated their websites to include complaint policies, as transparency is good news for community members and police alike.”
In 2014, Connecticut passed a law to address police complaints, prompted in part by a 2012 ACLU-CT survey that uncovered extensive problems with the police complaint process in the state.
That law, which passed the Connecticut General Assembly without a single dissenting vote in the Senate, required all police agencies — including municipal departments, state police barracks, and special agencies such as university departments — to make their complaint policies publicly available online and at municipal buildings.
The law also compelled all police agencies to adopt or exceed a complaint policy created by the state’s Police Officer Standards and Training Council.
That policy mandated agencies to:
• accept all complaints, including those submitted anonymously, online, by mail, over the phone, or by a third party;
• adopt or exceed a model complaint form, and;
• post complaint forms online and at municipal buildings.
The ACLU-CT’s latest study of 102 police agency websites, however, found that 40 had failed to clearly post their complaint policies and/or complaint forms online.
Together, the noncompliant municipal departments serve nearly 1 million people in the state. In a follow-up ACLU-CT telephone survey of 60 police agencies, 42 percent contradicted state law by suggesting that they did not make complaint policies fully available to the public. Nearly one-third stated or implied that they would not accept anonymous complaints.
“These barriers do nothing to improve safety or build public trust,” McGuire said. “They merely ensure that police departments will be the last to hear about potential problems within their ranks or in the community. We will be working to strengthen and reform Connecticut’s existing complaint law, so police departments can start earning the public’s trust.”