Background checks for new West Hartford civilian police review board spark debate

View of West Hartford Police Department in West Hartford, Conn., on Thursday Jan. 7, 2020.

WEST HARTFORD — While the mayor said conducting background checks “could raise a flag” about candidates applying for a new civilian police review board, the requirement spurred a debate before the town council approved the ordinance this week.

The review board — which would have seven members and three alternates and consist only of civilians — has the ability to conduct an “unbiased review of the investigation of complaints filed against any West Hartford police officer,” per the ordinance.

Members of the board, which is set to start working July 1, are also charged with assembling a yearly report, which would include “a brief summary of the disposition of all complaints” that have been examined and policy-related guidance, per the ordinance.

The measure’s approval comes after a police accountability bill — which, in part, covered the local formation of civilian review boards — gained state legislators’ approval last the summer.

West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said the town manager and police chief had been discussing it before “the state’s action on it.”

One sticking point of the ordinance, however, was the requirement for all candidates to undergo a background check before being selected.

“The question I have is on the provision on the background checks for members of the civilian review board. Kind of wanted to understand the reasoning behind that,” council member Liam Sweeney stated during the public hearing. “My understanding is that we don’t have background checks on any other boards that we have in the town.”

Assistant corporation counsel Cynthia Lauture said the panel would have “a bit of a different role than any of the other boards or commissions,” considering its members will be tasked with examining “matters that are more of a sensitive nature.”

“Essentially, they’ll be reviewing police records in order to make their determination,” Lauture said.

Lauture also noted that a criminal record will not automatically disqualify a candidate.

Corporation counsel Dallas Dodge said the background check requirement helps to “avoid embarrassing anybody who perhaps forgot about something in their history” or didn’t know about something within it.

Dodge said the mayor would review the background check and consider whether any of its findings “was so significant that perhaps the council should not move forward with the appointment.”

“Based on that explanation, I don’t really know why we have it,” Sweeney said in response. “No other board we have in town has it. I find it to kind of be against the spirit of what we’re trying to do here.”

Depending on the circumstances, Dodge said a criminal history will not prohibit someone from serving on the board. Dodge said a candidate who had been involved with “a violation of public trust or public integrity,” or “a serious sexual assault” might be someone who should not be selected for the board.

Police Chief Vernon Riddick said background checks are not “anything unusual” when dealing with law enforcement-type matters.

“And I think especially important given the sensitive nature in the documents that we’ll be revealing that it should be at least known to the council and the selection committee, the selection process, who we decide to allow to go forward,” he said.

Town manager Matt Hart said having the background check provision was “commonplace when you look at legislation across the country,” and it was important that board members “have credibility.”

After their explanations, Sweeney said the concept was more troubling for him.

“But the idea that we are putting, or going to be judging people on their background or their criminal history is actually one of the major reasons that we are where we are today having this conversation,” he said. “And so, I just have real trouble of that being an indicator of how we are going to decide whether or not someone can participate on this.”

The review board would also have access to unredacted documents and investigation reports.

The board’s review is “limited to the completed internal affairs investigation and any corresponding attachments that go with them,” Lauture said.

Eight council members, minus Chris Williams who was not present, cast their votes in support of the ordinance.

In her comments before the vote, Cantor said the background check “could raise a flag.”

“But I am hoping that we have people that have had negative experiences with police and have a perspective that other members of the community might not have,” she said. “And that’s important, and it’s up to us to recruit those members.”

Connecticut Media Group