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Newtown Police Chief Responds To Local Data In ACLU Report



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Newtown Police Chief James Viadero wasted no time nor was he evasive when responding to The Newtown Bee regarding details about his department appearing in a new Connecticut ACLU report entitled, Earning Trust: Addressing Police Misconduct Complaints in Connecticut, which was released January 26.

That report indicates Newtown was among a dozen police agencies across the state where data was un-collectible because according to the document, no personnel were available to take ACLU survey calls - and two voicemails the ACLU states were left regarding department conformity to state laws on citizen complaint procedures went un-returned.

Chief Viadero was quick to defend the local department's adherence to state law, which requires all police agencies including municipal departments, state police troops, and others like university police departments, to adopt or exceed a model complaint policy created by the Police Officer Standards and Training Council (POSTC).

That council created a statewide model complaint form, which POSTC required departments to adopt and to make available online, and at municipal buildings separate from departments themselves. State law also requires all police agencies to make their complaint policies publicly available on their websites and at municipal buildings separate from the departments themselves.

Further, a POSTC's model policy also requires all police employees to accept all complaints, including those submitted anonymously, online, by mail, or by telephone; and prohibits retaliation against complainants and questions about complainants' immigration statuses during intake.

The ACLU report shows that many police agencies failed to clearly post their complaint policies and complaint forms online, refuse to accept anonymous complaints, and include threats of prosecution in their complaint intake protocols. In some cases, these obstacles violate state law and statewide police policy.

"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."

The ACLU-CT study of 102 police agency websites found that 40 had failed to clearly post their complaint policies and/or complaint forms online. Together, the non-compliant municipal departments serve nearly a million people across Connecticut. In a follow-up ACLU-CT telephone survey of 60 police agencies, 42 percent contradicted state law by suggesting that they did not make complaint policies fully available to the public.

Nearly one-third stated or implied that they would not accept anonymous complaints.

Newtown Data Un-collectible

Chief Viadero said he takes both the issues of public trust and transparency very seriously, and was concerned that the report reflected Newtown was among 13 agencies transferring survey calls straight to voicemail boxes, which required follow-up calls. Also, that Newtown was among nine agencies including Monroe, Naugatuck, New Milford, North Branford, Ridgefield, Rocky Hill, Waterbury, and Waterford, also forwarding those follow-up calls to voicemail.

Ultimately, Newtown was among 12 agencies from which the ACLU could not collect telephone survey data, because callers were unable to obtain answers during either of their attempts to gather information. The other town departments included: Brookfield, Danbury, Middlebury, Monroe, Naugatuck, New Milford, Ridgefield, Rocky Hill, Waterbury, Waterford, and West Haven.

"The absence of information from these agencies is itself cause for alarm, as it suggests that concerned residents would be similarly frustrated in attempts to learn how to file complaints," the ACLU report states.

Chief Viadero said he has read the recent ACLU report on compliance with state statutes pertaining to citizen complaints, noting the report outlines numerous deficiencies with various departments compliance utilizing a random call methodology.

"Newtown PD was mentioned as having been part of this random survey, and cited for not returning two voice mails," Chief Viadero said. "As was illustrated in the report, numerous agencies were recognized for deficiencies, and even the POSTC model policy was cited as not being comprehensive enough to address the agencies concerns. While understanding the methodology, and the need to be random and anonymous, I would have liked to have had the opportunity to review the phone request, affording this agency the opportunity to explain its policy, while addressing the concern of the ACLU."

Lacking that venue, the police chief was more than willing to explain his position to residents within his own jurisdiction after being queried by The Bee.

"As the Chief of Police I can affirm that the department is in compliance with the POSTC directive of 2015, requiring all departments to adopt to a standard policy on receiving and handling citizen complaints, defining clear mandates," he said. "Our policy was updated in July of 2015 to reflect these mandates, and that this policy is currently in place."

Locally, he pointed out that his department has not only recently undergone a change of department head, but has also completed a lengthy and involved process of moving to a new website.

"Some of the information posted on the site may have contained conflicting material identifying the department head, but the required forms were readily available. As of this date the current website has been updated, complaint forms are available in both English and Spanish, as well as being accompanied by an instruction sheet that delineates our policy," Chief Viadero continued.

"As the Chief of this agency it is my philosophy to be as responsive and transparent to our community as functionally possible, this includes the handling of citizen complaints," he said. "I am quite confident that our officers will do everything within their power to competently and professionally address any citizen complaint, complying completely with state statute, having no reason not to do so."

A Training Opportunity

Chief Viadero said he respects the position of the ACLU and their intent at requiring compliance and transparency.

"If the report serves as an illustration that certain deficiencies are evident, then it is our obligation to rectify these deficiencies," he said. "Oversight is a welcome cornerstone of gaining public trust and insuring organizational integrity. As an agency we take great pride in the relationship that has been fostered with the community; we also embrace any opportunity to improve on this relationship."

The ACLU report has been disseminated to the entire Newtown Police command and supervisory staff and the chief said it will be discussed at the department's next staff meeting, serving as a training opportunity.

"Additionally, I have had the opportunity to discuss the report with our Public Safety Communications Director," Chief Viadero added. "A policy was instituted, insuring their staff is aware of the state mandate and our policy pertaining to handling complaints, while outlining clear directives in receiving and forwarding a complaint. While the communications division does not fall under the supervision or control of this department, there is a strong and essential partnership between the two. Their understanding of the mandate is essential in fulfilling our shared mission of providing public safety services, and they have taken responsive steps to work to this end with the Police Department."

The ACLU stated in the report that the majority of agencies that failed to clearly post either or both the complaint form and policy were in southwestern Connecticut - 11 were in New Haven County, and 12 were in Fairfield County. In addition, most municipal departments that failed to clearly post either or both the form or policy serve towns with mid-to-large populations.

Methodology And Recommendations

After an initial review of information collected, the ACLU narrowed the pool of agencies for telephone surveys to 60: 45 municipal police departments, two universities, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and 12 state police trooper barracks. To complete these telephone surveys, two trained ACLU-CT volunteers, who varied in age and ethnic background, called all 60 agencies' non-emergency numbers.

Volunteers called on two consecutive days in October 2016, during the normal business hours of 9 am through 5 pm. Callers began by informing the agency representatives that their calls were for a research project, and that they were not seeking to file a complaint. They proceeded by asking eight questions from a script, and in order to double-check the initial screening process, that script included an opportunity for agencies to help callers find complaint forms and policies online.

Following each call, volunteers noted the call length, number of holds and transfers, whether the call required navigation through automated messages or voicemails, and the general demeanor of agency representatives.

The ACLU states that findings reveal a clear need for additional legislative action, both to make permanent the improvements that Connecticut has made and address areas that continue to hinder police transparency and accountability.

The Connecticut General Assembly should adopt legislation that:

*Establishes meaningful penalties for law enforcement agencies that do not comply with state complaint acceptance and investigation laws;

*Improves POSTC's existing model complaint policy and adopts that revised version as state law;

*Creates a standardized complaint form that is compliant with best practices and translated into all commonly-spoken languages in Connecticut, to be used by all law enforcement agencies in the state;

*Mandates complaint protocol training for all law enforcement agency personnel who interact with the public.

*Requires law enforcement agencies to track complaint data and to annually report specific complaint information to the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management.

For the full report, visit acluct.org/earningtrust.

For information on the ACLU-CT's 2012 survey and the 2014 Connecticut police complaint law visit acluct.org/updates/police-complaint-reform-bill-passed/.

Newtown Police Chief James Viadero
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