HARTFORD, CT – A bill ordering police departments to do a better job posting instructions about how to file a complaint against police received broad support at a public hearing Friday.
Some even thought the proposed bill doesn’t go far enough to hold police accountable.
The bill follows the release of a report, which showed that many police agencies fail to clearly post their complaint policies and complaint forms online, and refuse to accept anonymous complaints.
The report was conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.
It found 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 ACLU.
David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, told Judiciary Committee members Friday that he supported the legislation, but would like to see it amended.
“House Bill 7285 recognizes that our police complaint process is broken, but it could go further to fix it,” McGuire said.
He said the bill identifies the problem with the police complaint process, but doesn’t do anything to fix it.
McGuire recommended penalties for law enforcement agencies that don’t comply. He also asked the state to create a standardized complaint form and asked that law enforcement track the complaint data.
Michael P. Lawlor, the state’s under secretary for criminal justice policy and planning, has had the opportunity to study — and talk over — the ACLU report with several police chiefs.
Lawlor said Friday that if the legislature goes forward with legislation that mandates his office to track individual police departments complaints by citizens “we certainly will do so.”
“We do it already for things such as traffic stops and tasers,” Lawlor noted, although he added a note of caution that such tracking “can’t be done for free.”
In 2014, Connecticut passed a law to address 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 or 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.
“Police departments have had more than one year to comply with the state complaint law. Many have still not done so,” McGuire said. “The Connecticut General Assembly needs to step in to make sure that all departments across the state follow the rules.”
Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, who is president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said, a few weeks ago, he felt “frustrated” when he heard about the ACLU’s damning 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.”
Salvatore did not testify Friday against the bill or submit testimony.
One of the responses McGuire said he 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.
But the ACLU’s findings were backed by others who submitted testimony to the Judiciary Committee.
One of those submitting written testimony in support of the bill, was Maria Teresa Sandoval-Schaefer, of Hamden, also an organizer of Showing Up For Racial Justice – New Haven.
“In the City of New Haven, there is a general feeling of police distrust, being especially evident in communities of color,” Sandoval-Schaefer said. “Civilians deserve access to anonymous, transparent, accessible, and free of intimidation process of complaint of police misconduct in order to regain that trust and effectively collaborate with the police department in creating safe neighborhoods.”
Sandoval-Schaefer added: “I have learned from community members that they feel police are racially profiling them during simple traffic stops, for hanging out around their neighborhoods, or in the case of activists, for exercising their civil right to publicly demonstrate. Unfortunately, without a fair and transparent complaint process, many of these cases are dismissed and don’t make it into the public records.”