MIDDLETOWN — The city’s Anti-Racism Task Force is recommending the creation of a civilian review board to address Middletown’s higher rates of police stops among people of color. But several city leaders and police department members have reservations about the plan.
“Middletown has had a specific history of blocking out Black and Brown folks from jobs, from opportunities, from being in the police department,” Sacha Armstrong-Crockett, co-chair of the task force, told CT Examiner earlier this month. “So there’s a deep history that people who are rooted in this community are well aware of and has been documented.”
Though the task force voted to suggest a civilian review board at its April meeting, Armstrong-Crockett said the group had been discussing the idea since 2020.
The task force, which began in July 2020 following the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, based its recommendation partly on a report from the National Conference for Community and Justice. The project’s goal was to “assess the racial climate of Middletown and provide a strategic plan for how to address existing racial inequity within the City,” according to the report.
The conference also conducted focus groups with community members, who reported discrimination against people of color in a variety of situations in the city. According to the report, residents said people of color often held lower-ranking jobs in city government, were disproportionately pulled over and arrested by the police, were more likely to live in low-income neighborhoods, and that there was a lack of support for children of color in schools.
Armstrong-Crockett also referenced the Connecticut Racial Profiling Prohibition Project’s data on traffic stops. According to its 2022 report, Middletown was one of two municipalities and three State Police troops that showed a clear racial disparity in traffic stops made during the day, when racial profiling would be possible. The data found that Hispanic drivers in Middletown were significantly more likely to be stopped during the day.
A draft proposal for the civilian review board outlines a group of seven volunteer members who would be appointed by the mayor’s office. It specifies that none of the members can be former or current police officers, or have family members who are former or current police officers. The board would be responsible for reviewing complaints made against members of the police department and could accept or object to the outcome of internal affairs investigations made into these complaints.
Several Middletown leaders, however, have concerns about the plan.
At a March task force meeting, police officers and union President Nick Puorro were in attendance virtually. Puorro said the officers were not invited to be part of the discussion around policing in the community, and that he felt the discussion exercise the task force started with — called the “Criminal Justice Conversation Starter packet” had an incorrect depiction of the Middletown Police Department.
“A summary of the documents implies there’s a lack of accountability within the Middletown Police Department. That’s false. It implies the Middletown Police Department and our officers target minorities. That’s false. It implies the Middletown police officers are conducting improper motor vehicle stops. That’s false,” Puorro argued.
Police Chief Erik Costa said in February that he would be in favor of a civilian review board but questioned whether it would be advisory or have authority.
“My concern is taking away my authority of discipline of my officers,” Costa said.
Costa told CT Examiner this month that he had not yet vetted the current civilian review board recommendation, but that he was willing to work with the city, task forces and the union to finalize the proposal.
“I believe in transparency and working with the community to see what is best for the city of Middletown when it comes to the establishment of the CRB,” Costa said. “I have not spoken to anyone formally in regards to next steps, but I am in favor of CRB being another tool for law enforcement to reinforce the hard and difficult decisions that police officers have to make on a daily basis.”
Common Councilman Mike Marino, a former officer and former union president who was recently appointed to the task force, urged the committee during the March meeting to “use him as a tool,” but also said he wasn’t convinced about having a civilian review board.
“I think they foster more distrust between the police — that’s my opinion,” said Marino, adding that he felt police were concerned the board would be made up of “just people that really dislike the police.”
Marino said he felt the task force needed to be “a safe space for everybody.”
Republican Common Councilman Tony Gennaro also said he did not support the idea as outlined by the task force.
“These [civilian review boards] have been failures everywhere, so why would we want to implement what’s been done somewhere else, but it’s a failure?” Gennaro said during the March meeting. “If we’re going to do it, we’ve got to do it in a way that’s reflective of our community.”
Bobbye Knoll Peterson, the mayor’s chief of staff, told CT Examiner that the civilian review board proposal would have to go through multiple commissions and committees before it ultimately reached the mayor and the Common Council for a vote. She said the Anti-Racism Task Force presented its “best ask” with the knowledge that it would be modified before final approval.
“We’re going to have conversations with the police union, we’re going to have conversations with the [Human Relations Commission], we’re going to have conversations with public safety, and some of these things will be paired down,” she said.
She noted there would be an opportunity for the public to weigh in.
Mayor Benjamin Florsheim said he was supportive of a civilian review board, though he noted that the details around how it operates would be critical — which is why the task force had spent years looking into the proposal.
“The civilian review board is really a term that lacks a fixed definition,” Florsheim said. “There are very few – in Connecticut or anywhere in the country — precedents that we can look to.”
Ultimately, he said he believed the board would be an asset to the community.
“In general, I do think that it makes sense to have a level of civilian oversight beyond what we have right now, which is that we have an internal affairs department that investigates issues when they’re brought forward,” he said. “I think that one of the benefits of a civilian review board is that it can be a vehicle for helping the community understand what policing looks like in Middletown and in the modern era.”