In May, the Hamden Police Commission shut down its monthly meeting when town activists asked the Commission to investigate Hamden police employee Devin Eaton’s shooting at Stephanie Washington and Paul Witherspoon. At the time, the Commission’s Chairman said the Commission could not even talk about the shooting. The problem is, Hamden’s town charter says the exact opposite. According to town law, Hamden’s Police Commission is required to investigate if it receives a complaint about a police employee from a member of the public.
Now, it is clear that the Commission was operating based on a traditional deference to police, not because of a legal obligation. After the Commission gave activists the cold shoulder, the ACLU of Connecticut filed an open records request seeking any law, contract, or other official documentation outlining why the Commission would not investigate residents’ complaints. The Commission responded to us by providing a slew of documents that show a town using custom, not law, to guide how it treats police misconduct complaints from its own residents.
Hamden’s town charter says that its Police Commission “shall meet and hear, upon written request, the complaint of . . . any citizen of the Town by reason of any alleged misconduct or malfeasance of any member of the [p]olice [d]epartment.” The Commission appears to acknowledge this obligation on its website, advertising that it “meet[s] and hear[s] the written complaint of any town citizen who requests it, concerning a member of the [p]olice [d]epartment.” State law empowers the Commission to conduct such hearings in a thorough manner, including by compelling witnesses to attend and the production of documents through subpoena.
So it seemed illegal for the Commission to refuse to hear town residents’ duly filed complaints about police employee Devin Eaton’s decision to shoot at two people. Dozens of town residents submitted complaints to the Commission, and residents showed up at its public meeting to make the same request. Yet the Commission’s Chairman said during that public meeting that the Commission would not “discuss this case in any way shape or form.” He also claimed the Commission could not make decisions about Eaton’s employment until prosecutors had finished deciding whether to pursue a case against Eaton for shooting.
The documents that Hamden released to the ACLU of Connecticut show that the Police Commission is basing its claims on the town collective bargaining agreement and town charter, which both allow the Commission to investigate a police employee as a result of a complaint from a town resident. The Commission is also using a town memo and the police department’s internal policies and procedures manual. The former is a legal interpretation but not a legal document, and the latter is just an employee handbook. Hamden’s memo shows that the town is reading things that are not there in the collective bargaining agreement and town charter; the charter and collective bargaining agreement both allow the Commission to investigate a police employee as a result of a complaint from the public, but the town has decided to interpret them differently.
The Hamden Police Commission’s refusal to act on town residents’ complaints is a blow to justice for Hamden community members. It is also a classic example of something we see over and over again when trying to hold police accountable: town and state governments give their police employees embarrassing deference, far different than what they provide to other employees. In some cases, like Hamden’s, that is because of unwritten rules that favor police, not because of actual legal requirements. In other cases, it is because town officials have bargained away some of their most powerful tools for holding police accountable. Some towns and cities, for example, have guaranteed that a police employee who receives a bad performance review will, by contract, stay on track for a pay raise, or that records of them being disciplined for misconduct will automatically disappear. In other cases, it is because legislators at the state level have similarly decided to entrust the foxes to guard the henhouse. This year, for instance, state legislators agreed to a contract that lets state police ignore certain public records requests about internal investigations into police misconduct.
Connecticut is the Land of Steady Habits, and many government officials here mistake the habit of letting police do whatever they want for a requirement, even when it is not. Hamden’s Police Commission needs stiffen its spine and do its job, and town and state legislators need to do theirs by insisting on the checks and balances we expect in a democracy. At a forum today, town residents will ask questions of people vying to become the next Mayor of Hamden. Hamden residents can use today’s forum to get answers about candidates’ plans for police accountability and whether candidates plan to change the makeup of the Police Commission.
It is not okay for towns to refuse to hold their police employees accountable. Hamden should stop relying on unwritten rules that favor police, and start being responsive to its residents.