Police chief: ACLU criticism shows training need

Trumbull is listed among dozens of police agencies that make it unnecessarily difficult for citizens to report police misconduct, according to report released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The report was released as a follow-up investigation to Connecticut General Statute 7-294bb, “An Act Concerning Complaints that Allege Misconduct by Law Enforcement Agency Personnel.” That law, designed to streamline the police complaint process, passed both houses of the legislature in 2014 without a single opposing vote.

The report cites numerous obstacles to lodging police misconduct complaints, including information being difficult to obtain, officers disseminating false or misleading information or not being reachable at all.

“Community members who wish to alert their police departments to misconduct should find open doors, not mazes of red tape and intimidation,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut, who supervised the study. “Unfortunately, many people seeking to file police complaints in Connecticut will be unable to find information from their local departments. Others will encounter misinformation or intimidation. These violations of state law and policy are unacceptable and disappointing. Transparent, accessible police complaint procedures build public trust, which improves public safety. Police departments that stonewall concerned community members are missing out on an important chance to better serve themselves and our state.”

To compile the report, ACLU volunteers visited the websites of 102 police departments and municipalities to determine if a police complaint policy and complaint form were available online, as required by law.

Then, ACLU volunteers called the non-emergency number for 60 departments, including the 40 where information was lacking online and 20 university, transit, and state police departments. Callers followed a script and identified themselves as researchers before asking for assistance in learning how to file a police misconduct complaint. Complete script of research calls is available here.

Among the specific Trumbull practices that the ACLU said were barriers to filing complaints was a failure to have a submission policy on its website. But a check of the site Friday morning revealed that there is a policy posted. ACLU spokesman Meghan Smith noted that the group had conducted its research in October and that the website could have been updated since then.

“We are glad that Trumbull’s policy is clearly posted on the website now, as transparency is good news for community members and police alike,” she said.

Trumbull also has a complaint form available online in both English and Spanish.

Despite the department being in compliance with state policy, Trumbull police gave incorrect information to callers asking how to file a complaint. The ACLU reported volunteers were told that complaint forms needed to be notarized and picked up and submitted at the department and that copies of the complaint policy were available only by request from a supervisor. This despite the fact that both the complaint form and policy are available outside the Town Clerk's office. State law mandates that in addition to being available online, copies of the complaint policy and complaint forms must be available at a municipal building that does not house the Police Department. Complaints do not need to be notarized and departments are required to accept anonymous and third-person complaints.

Finally, the report noted the length of the phone conversation, how long it took to speak with a person, and the number of times a caller was placed on hold. Calls to the Trumbull police reached a person in less than one minute, but Trumbull also placed callers on hold more than any other department, six times, with waits ranging from 41 seconds to one-minute and 37 seconds.

Police Chief Michael Lombardo told the Times that he learned of the report earlier this week, and took immediate action.

“I look at this as a training issue, where someone possibly gave out incorrect information,” Lombardo said. “I sent a directive to everyone, making sure they knew what was required. We accept all complaints. They don’t have to be notarized, they can be made anonymously, and they can be sent in any fashion, mail, email, or phone, and if anyone has any questions to read the policy.”

Lombardo said that without knowing the times and dates of the ACLU research calls (the group reports that the calls were made “on two consecutive days in October during normal business hours”), it was impossible to know who possibly gave out incorrect information, but that the staff had been reminded that, “we follow state policy,” he said.

The number of complaints lodged with the department varies. In 2015 Lombardo said there were 17 complaints filed against Trumbull officers. That number dropped to seven in 2016.