CHRIS POWELL: Police transparency study is evasive and even nutty

Published on Wednesday, 19 January 2022 20:28

Despite its two years of painstaking effort, Connecticut's Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force last week recommended little to increase transparency and accountability in police work.

The task force proposes some good things: standardizing police policies and record keeping and requiring policies and department censuses to be posted on the internet, as well as creating a central state registry of complaints against officers.

But transparency and accountability in police work are mainly matters of ensuring that what police do can be promptly seen and reviewed by the public, and the task force has failed on that. It would impose secrecy on complaints against officers and has made no recommendation on whether police union contracts should continue to be allowed to obstruct public access to investigations of officers.

Of course officers don't want false, misleading, or unsubstantiated complaints against them to become public. But unless the public has immediate access to all complaints, police management can conceal or minimize even valid complaints, as police management often has done.

Requiring that court proceedings and trials be public, Connecticut's Constitution presumes that the public can understand that not all allegations may be reliable until due process proves them. The public more easily can understand this in regard to complaints against police officers, since their accusers are usually criminals.

The task force gets more relevant with its observation that between a third and half the people killed by police have "disabilities," a euphemism here for mental illness. So the task force recommends that police departments assemble behavioral crisis response teams consisting of social workers who would help officers respond or relieve them of responding to disturbances involving the mentally ill.

This sounds good and is fashionable but it presumes that social workers particularly and government generally know what to do about mentally ill people who are prone to misconduct. But they don't know, and facilities for the chronically disruptive mentally ill have been lacking for decades since governments closed most of their mental hospitals in the belief that letting the chronically disruptive mentally ill run loose is more humane.

Replacing the police approach to the chronically disruptive mentally ill with the social worker approach has been well discredited by the case of Mubarak Soulemane, 19, of New Haven, who was fatally shot – executed, really – by a state trooper two years ago this month.

Soulemane had threatened people with a knife in Norwalk and then stole a car and led police on a chase along I-95 before being blocked by cruisers in West Haven. Police video shows that while Soulemane sat quietly in the stopped car with the windows up, threatening no one, the trooper shot him seven times.

Like other investigations of police misconduct, a prosecutor's investigation of the case has been stalled so long that it has become a cover-up, so it may be concluded that Soulemane was shot not because of any danger he posed at that moment but because of the trooper's adrenaline and rage.

But Soulemane's family and doctors share responsibility for his predictable demise. His mental illness was well known for at least four years. His family often had called New Haven police to help restrain him and had taken him to Yale New Haven Hospital at least 10 times. A few months after he was killed, his sister, Mariyann, told the Connecticut Mirror: "It was a constant battle: Mubarak versus schizophrenia."

That is, nothing worked, and motorized battalions of social workers aren't likely to work either. Mental hospitals might but they are still considered less humane than letting the chronically disruptive mentally ill run loose as threats to themselves and others.

But the task force gets nuttier than its naïve belief in social work. Noting that, likely because of their greater poverty, Black and Hispanic motorists are stopped by police more often than white motorists for vehicle equipment and registration violations, the task force proposes suspending enforcement against such violations.

The task force doesn't speculate on what will happen when word gets around Connecticut that your car doesn't need a license plate, registration, headlights, or taillights anymore.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in New Britain Herald, Columns on Wednesday, 19 January 2022 20:28. Updated: Wednesday, 19 January 2022 20:31.