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Better oversight of police would benefit NL

Published December 20. 2009 4:00AM

Among the biggest challenges faced by small, urban police departments is the handling of complaints of police misconduct by citizens. And complaints will come, given the fact that departments such as New London face many of the same challenges as their big-city counterparts.

Public housing projects that provide shelter to the needy can also be cauldrons of criminality that accompany poverty. Police face the challenge of aggressively combating the drug trade, but must be ever conscious not to slip into racial or cultural profiling. Letting down his or her guard can be a fatal mistake for a cop, but overaggressive behavior can alienate the public the police are here to serve.

Inevitably, there will be citizens who feel they were not treated fairly and some who indeed are not. But unlike larger departments, smaller urban communities cannot afford internal affairs divisions to assess and root out police misconduct. And so the job of evaluating complaints falls to ranking officers, the captains in New London's case, who must judge the very patrolmen they have to work with each day. It is asking a lot, but this is their duty.

Chief Margaret Ackley, a former captain promoted to the top position last June, appears committed to make this system work, as imperfect as it may be. Since her appointment, Chief Ackley has made it standard policy that any officer questioned about a complaint does so under oath. That should discourage any officers who might shade the truth to protect their own or a fellow officer's interests.

Chief Ackley is demanding strict adherence to statutory timetables in addressing complaints and careful documenting of internal investigations. And she is committed to transparency by making available investigatory documents, as required by the Freedom of Information Act.

And she is willing to act, firing two officers in July for misconduct and taking disciplinary action against others who did not adhere to the department's code of conduct.

At her urging, the City Council appears ready to restore the position of deputy chief, cut several years ago to trim the budget. In departments the size of New London this nonunion position (unlike the captains) is typically responsible for internal investigations. We encourage the council to restore the position and challenge Chief Ackley, through reduced overtime and other cost-cutting measures, to find the money to pay for it.

Yet one more element is necessary to assure confidence in the integrity of the police force - civilian oversight.

New London does have a Police Community Relations Committee, but it operates under an overly restrictive ordinance approved in 1988. When it comes to assessing police probes of officer misconduct it can only issue a finding that an investigation was "adequate or inadequate" and report to the chief. The finding is strictly advisory and the chief can disregard it, as was the case in an incident reported on the front page of today's Perspective section.

The council should amend the ordinance to provide the committee authority to reopen an investigation it finds inadequate and to demand that specific questions get addressed - such as whether there was a revision of policies to address a recognized shortcoming. And the council should eliminate language that refers to civilian complaint records as "privileged," when in fact they are public documents under state law.

New London deserves the assurance of true civilian oversight, not just the appearance of oversight, which is what it has now.

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