Hamden Police Commission and department clash over release of records

HAMDEN — A police commissioner seeking release of police department records has filed a complaint with the Freedom of Information Commission about the city’s delay in releasing the records he requested in February.

The move comes as the police commission grapples with its role in overseeing the department – council member Daniel Dunn filed the complaint a day after a town hall meeting in which he and his colleagues expressed frustration their inability to access civil complaints and internal affairs documents.

Police Chief John Sullivan told the meeting that a staff shortage had made it difficult to meet the demand.

“We’re working on it right now,” he said. “Unfortunately, we are extremely busy. We are understaffed. »

Dunn thinks “the heist” is a “reluctance to be transparent”. He requested a large number of civil complaints a month and a half ago, he said, and has yet to consider a single one.

Other commissioners, including Elaine Dove and Chair Rhonda Caldwell, expressed similar frustrations. But Frank LaDore, who was unable to attend last week’s meeting but spoke to a reporter on Friday, has a different view.

“I don’t think they’re not transparent. I believe they are in the weeds,” he said, noting that the agency has lost about 15 officers.

LaDore said he found Sullivan to come.

“I can call Chief Sullivan right now, and he’ll answer his phone and he’ll answer any questions I have,” LaDore said.

Requirement

Dunn criticized the department for not releasing a complaint in the nearly two months since it submitted a request.

On Feb. 25, Dunn cited the FOI Act to seek civil complaints filed between 2016 and 2022, according to correspondence between Dunn and city officials. He also asked for reports on the use of force for the same period.

About two weeks later, City Attorney Sue Gruen provided Dunn with a copy of the Civil Complaints Log, according to the correspondence. Dunn replied indicating that he wanted to see the actual complaints.

“These are public records, aren’t they, so this commission and I in my capacity as commissioner and through the FOIA request a month and a half ago requested review of the complaints civilians,” Dunn said during a police board meeting last Wednesday, a recording of which is available on the city’s website.

“It’s a complete farce that … not a single sitting commissioner has looked into a civil complaint,” he said. “It’s scandalous.”

Dunn filed a complaint with the Connecticut FOI Commission on Thursday. He shared a copy with the New Haven Register.

Also Thursday, Sullivan assigned a police captain to gather copies of the civil complaints and share them with Gruen for review, according to an email obtained by the Register.

“Commissioners ask for a lot of documents, both as private citizens and as police commissioners. We produced a lot of information that they requested, Sullivan said Monday.

He said some of the records need to be reviewed and redacted by the city attorney. If they can be released, Sullivan said, the city will release them.

What is public?

Can the ministry disclose civil complaints related to ongoing investigations? That issue was raised at Wednesday’s police board meeting, when Sullivan expressed a willingness to turn over the records of the cases that were tried, but was reluctant to release the department’s most recent complaints.

He deferred to Chuck Tiernan, an attorney who represents the police commission, on whether the agency should release records related to ongoing cases.

“Open cases are not supposed to be released until they are resolved, depending on how they are resolved,” Tiernan told the commissioners.

Valicia Harmon, staff attorney for the Connecticut FOI Commission, said she believes civil complaints should be disclosed regardless of the status of related investigations.

“The Supreme Court has said that complaints must be disclosed” even if they are unfounded, she said, adding that the practice allows the public to assess the quality of internal case investigations.

“Because the complaint will have to be disclosed anyway,” Harmon said, an ongoing investigation should not affect its publication.

But internal affairs investigation reports for ongoing cases are another matter. When asked to release such documents, agencies can cite an FOI exemption that prevents agencies from having to release documents in draft form, Harmon said.

Tiernan later said he thought the civil complaints should be released, but was unsure about information related to ongoing internal investigations.

“It’s more about manpower than reluctance to release (civil complaints),” he said. “It’s just a matter of having (enough) individuals to collect what needs to be collected so that (recordings) can be distributed.”

The role of the committee

While Dunn’s FOI appeal relates only to civil complaints and use of force reports, Dunn said he requested documents both as a private citizen and as a commissioner.

At a meeting in February, he and Caldwell requested various department records, including personnel files for all agency officers and reports on internal affairs, according to meeting minutes.

The question of what is releasable under the Freedom of Information Act is a separate issue from what police boards have the power to review. The FOI Commission cannot adjudicate cases in which individuals claim a right of access to documents because of special positions, according to Harmon.

Under Hamden’s charter, the city’s police commission will hear complaints from civilians and department personnel “upon written request.”

He also has the exclusive power to “appoint, promote and remove” staff and “the power to exercise the powers and duties contained in this Charter and the Ordinances relating to the supervision of general management (including operations) of the Police Department”.

But the police department’s collective bargaining agreement gives the police chief the authority to rule on internal matters when the disciplinary action does not exceed a five-day suspension, Sullivan told the commission last week. If he recommends harsher consequences, the commission must approve them.

Caldwell believes that reviewing complaints is essential to the commission’s oversight role.

“It’s totally frustrating,” she said of the delay in receiving the files. “We really don’t do anything. We do not perform any of our tasks as Commissioners.

“We need to make sure that complaints are taken seriously, that state law is followed, and that Internal Affairs takes their job seriously and investigates every complaint that comes across their desk,” Dunn said.

But not everyone sees it that way. LaDore, the commissioner who blamed the delay in releasing the documents on personnel issues, believes the commission should prioritize hiring police officers.

While the commission should have access to the complaints, he said, he fears the issue could distract from the council’s duty to hire officers.

“We desperately need to hire officers and that’s our job as a commission,” he said. “Right now, our main focus should be hiring. … We have to put boots on the pitch, and that’s the most important thing right now.

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