ACLU survey finds police complaint practices still deficient

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Many police agencies across the state are breaking the law by failing to make policies for misconduct complaints accessible to the public, according to a survey released today by the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut.

This study is a follow-up to a 2012 ACLU report in which callers posing as complainants could not find appropriate complaint forms, and in some cases faced intimidation or a threat of prosecution. A law was passed in 2014 requiring departments to post their complaint policies at the police station, city hall and online and adopt or strengthen their complaint policies to meet certain standards, including accepting all complaints, even anonymous ones.

The ACLU’s latest study, conducted in October, found 40 agencies did not have their complaint policies or forms posted clearly on their websites. In a follow-up telephone survey, the ACLU said, about 42 percent of the departments that cover the state’s 60 largest municipalities suggested they did not make their complaint policies available to the public and nearly one-third of those contacted said they would not accept anonymous complaints. This, the ACLU said, is contrary to the requirements in the law.

“We need meaningful ramifications, like perhaps losing funding if they don’t comply,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU in Connecticut. “You could have the best policy in the world, but if folks interacting with the public don’t know those policies, they’re not worth the paper they’re written on.”

At ACLU “Know Your Rights” seminars across the state, the number one complaint from residents is a lack of meaningful oversight of police departments, said McGuire. Confusion or fear of retaliation prevents people from stepping forward with complaints, said McGuire.

The follow-up survey was conducted by calling the non-emergency police line. Often the person reached did not have a concrete understanding of the complaints policy or where to find it. Any law enforcement personnel that deal frequently with the public should get training, said McGuire.

Monroe Police Chief John Salvatore, who is president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, said police departments in the state had been working to improve trust in their communities and correct problems with complaints.

“The title of their report is ‘Earning Trust,’ and I believe we’ve been attempting to do that in Connecticut for years,” said Salvatore. “So it’s kind of disheartening and frustrating as we’re trying to build bonds with our communities with all this negative attention.”

“If we’re notified of noncompliance, then the department could have taken timely action to correct it. It might be as simple as having an individual employee that needs retraining,” Salvatore said.

The person ACLU reached in its phone survey might not work directly with the police department, Salvatore said, and sometimes a different city department handles communications for police, as they do in New Britain and Newtown.

Since the survey was conducted in October, Salvatore said, some departments recognized deficiencies and fixed them before the ACLU report came out. “Through a civilian complaint, [an agency] addressed it back in December,” he said.

Most of the agencies that did not clearly post either the complaint form or policy were in southwestern Connecticut, according to the ACLU. In New Haven County, there were 11, and in Fairfield County, there were 12.

The ACLU said seven police department representatives they called (in Bridgeport, Clinton, New Britain, Norwalk, Norwich, Plymouth, and Putnam) said they did not have forms available online but actually did have them on their respective websites. On the other hand, Orange police said their complaint form was online, but it could not be located.

Though police are required to accept anonymous complaints, nearly a quarter of the agencies would not take them seriously, according to the survey.

Nine municipalities said outright they would not accept them: Bethel, Bridgeport, Clinton, New Britain, New Haven, Norwalk, Norwich, Thomaston and Willimantic. According to the ACLU, the representative from Norwich replied, “No, then it’s not a complaint,” while a person from Bridgeport said, “No, what’s the point, you know?”

Salvatore said his department accepts anonymous complaints but understands why some agencies would urge that complaints have names attached.

“We want to get back to them and let them know we took their complaint seriously,” he said, “to let them know that we are addressing it, or if we can explain the situation so they have a better understanding of it and that communication perhaps will lead to more respect for the department.”

Browse some of the questions and results below. Towns not listed either had their policies online or did not meet the threshold for community size to be included in the ACLU survey.

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