When the Connecticut State Police Union sought to prevent the release of names of state troopers involved in a scandal involving fake traffic stop tickets allegedly written to hide racial targeting, a superior court struck down the motion. It did so not on the grounds that the request was without merit, but because the union lacked subject matter jurisdiction to block the release of information.
In part, the court’s decision hinged on a pending complaint before Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission (FOIC). As the dispute deals with the appropriate disclosure of records under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the commission has primary jurisdiction over the matter. Depending on the FOIC’s finding in that complaint, the police union can still appeal to the superior court over whether the names of officers who allegedly wrote fake traffic tickets can be released. In short, the public may still be prevented from learning the names of officers with serious misconduct allegations against them.
But the possibility that police wrongdoing can be hidden from the public isn’t isolated. For officers in numerous municipalities around the state, the conditions of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that governs their department allow disciplinary action to be removed from officers records after a certain period of time. In other municipalities, the conditions of the CBA don’t allow officials in that department to hand out discipline to officers accused of wrongdoing. They must wait on decisions from separate entities, sometimes a board of police commissioners or a municipal official, like a town manager.
But even understanding exactly how accountable police in their town are isn’t that simple, as CBAs aren’t always publicly available or easy to locate. That’s why the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut (ACLU of CT) started Project Flashlight.
The project collects data on CBAs from across the state, as well as information about police commissions, which are authorized by state law to manage municipal police departments.
For this investigation, Inside Investigator analyzed data from Project Flashlight and other sources to gauge how accountable disciplinary measures in CBAs across the state hold municipal police officers and found that 17 percent of towns with local police departments lack basic disciplinary oversight and control.
Of 169 municipalities in Connecticut, 88 have municipal police departments. 48 of those have no immediate disciplinary authority. In those 48 departments, police agencies are unable to discipline officers who have engaged in misconduct without a formal hearing first being held.
According to Project Flashlight’s data, in 16 of those 48 municipalities, any discipline that is meted out to officers does not remain permanently on their records. In total, 36 municipalities allow disciplinary actions to be wiped from an officers’ record either after a certain period of time has passed or if certain conditions are met.
Avon is among the towns in the state that neither give police agencies the authority to immediately discipline officers nor require disciplinary actions to remain permanently on an officer’s record.
The town’s collective bargaining agreement, which is in effect through June 30, 2024, has a disciplinary hearing procedure one paragraph in length. It states, “If at any time, the Town elects to have formal hearings pertaining to the actions of any employee at which witnesses shall be called and interviewed, the employee shall have the right to produce witnesses on his/her behalf.” It also stipulates that all witnesses shall be sworn. Additionally, if formal charges are made against an employee, the CBA requires the employee be given a copy at least seven days prior to the hearing.
The CBA also stipulates that written reprimands placed in an employee’s disciplinary file “will not be considered for purposes of promotion, transfer, special assignments and disciplinary action provided that over that same period of time, there has been no additional disciplinary action taken against the employee.” Disciplinary actions with more severe penalties can be removed under the same conditions if they are more than five years old.
Not only are disciplinary records not to be taken into consideration after this time period, but they can be destroyed in accordance with the state’s record retention laws.
Per Avon’s CBA, records of written reprimands that are more than two years old and disciplinary actions with more severe penalties that are more than five years old will be removed from an officer’s file provided there has been no additional disciplinary action. The town is responsible for submitting the necessary paperwork to the State Public Records Administrator.
Connecticut’s record retention schedule for municipalities stipulates that internal affairs investigation files that are unsubstantiated must be retained for two years. Files from an investigation that took no disciplinary action greater than a letter of reprimand or supervisory counseling must be retained for at least five years from the date the case was closed. Investigation files that had greater disciplinary actions attached must be retained for at least 30 years from the end of employment.
CBAs are limited in their ability to order the destruction of public employee disciplinary records. A 1990 ruling from Connecticut’s Supreme Court in Lieberman v. Board of Labor Relations held that destruction of public employee disciplinary records is an illegal subject of collective bargaining because bargaining is limited to the subjects on which parties can agree, which is guided by state law.
Essentially, CBAs cannot demand that public records be destroyed or otherwise removed from the public’s view in a manner not consistent with existing law. This means CBAs can affirm the destruction of records in keeping with timetables set by the state’s record retention laws but they cannot require towns to destroy or remove records ahead of those timetables.
Avon’s CBA also stipulates that hearings in disciplinary procedures are closed to the public—and the press—unless parties agree they should be open.
This policy goes against the best practices recommended by the ACLU of CT. In fact, Avon’s CBA fails to meet four out of five best practices recommended by the organization.
As part of Project Flashlight’s documentation of CBAs for municipal police departments around the state, the ACLU of CT recommends best practices on disciplinary authority, whether discipline remains on an officer’s record, whether a discipline procedure is public, whether a complaint hearing in a disciplinary procedure is unrestricted, and whether officers face pension reductions as a consequence of disciplinary actions.
For disciplinary authority, the organization recommends a police agency have the authority to immediately discipline an employee, outside a formal hearing process. They also recommend that misconduct and job performance data remain permanently on an employee’s record and that disciplinary actions and hearings be public, regardless of which stage of the disciplinary process at which they occur. Additionally, the organization’s recommendation on unrestricted complaint hearings is that police departments be able to handle and investigate all citizen complaints they receive, something some CBAs allow police departments to disregard. Finally, the organization recommends that CBAs allow officers’ pensions to be reduced based on job performance and disciplinary actions.
According to Dan Barrett, legal director for the ACLU of CT, there are different reasons behind each of the organization’s recommended best practices. Uniting each recommendation is an overarching goal of making data on policing more accessible and transparent.
“What we see state-wide and nation-wide is that bad things happen and the question is, as cops engage in violence, the question is always how did this person get promoted? And the answer is usually that the CBA erases history or forbids management from figuring it in when giving out promotions. When we’re wondering about things like why police culture doesn’t change, things like what we call disappearing discipline factors into it.” Barrett said.
Barrett added that the ACLU of CT began tracking police contract data through Project Flashlight because a lot of it has not been very publicly accessible in the past.
“In our job to educate the public about civil liberties, it became pretty apparent that a lot of basic information is missing or is not readily available when it comes to the police. If a person’s town is having a debate about the police budget or there’s a set of rules being discussed, data is not readily available to figure out who is there a police commission, who’s on it, who’s in charge. It can get pretty Byzantine.” Barrett said, adding that while the information is there and can be had, it takes a while to find it one step. Project Flashlight aims to provide easy access to basic information.
Barrett added that often the answer to why there is no reform in the wake of incidents of police misconduct is in the CBA. “They’re often set up in a way where disciplining an employee is next to impossible.” Barrett said.
In some cases, according to Barrett, the disciplinary panel an officer accused of misconduct goes before has members such as the chief of police, union representatives, and other members. “I can’t imagine a lot of discipline is being meted out by the union against fellow members.” Barrett added. “Internal controls do not appear to be a meaningful source of democratic control.”
Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a union that represents a number of police departments in the state, did not respond to a request for comment on why it includes limits on disciplinary authority in CBAs or how this benefits public safety.
Avon’s CBA, which meets only the ACLU of CT’s recommendations for best practices in having an unrestricted complaint hearing, is far from the only municipal police department in the state to fall short on accountability measures.
Unlike Avon, Norwalk’s current CBA for police, which is in effect through June 30, 2024, does not allow for unrestricted complaint hearings. The CBA stipulates that if a complaint is received from a person outside the police department or other city department, the officer who receives the complaint must ask for a sworn statement. If that sworn statement is made, a copy is given to the chief and deputy chief of police, the officer involved in the complaint, and the union prior to any questioning regarding the matter.
Union officials must be notified within 72 hours of a complaint being made, either by phone or email. That notification must include the name of the officer and the general nature of the complaints.
For complaints that might result in a criminal investigation, notification is to be given only to the chief of police, or deputy in their absence. The chief has the discretion to order an internal affairs investigation into the complaint.
Like Avon, Norwalk also fails to meet the ACLU’s recommended best practices on accountability in several other areas. The CBA limits the amount of time in which an internal affairs investigation into employee conduct can be initiated to within one year of the date misconduct allegedly occurred. The only exception to this is charges made as a result of a conviction on a criminal charge.
While the chief of police does have immediate disciplinary authority and discipline remains on an officer’s record, the town’s disciplinary hearing is not public. Per the CBA, when the police chief is considering disciplinary action involving either suspension or a discharge, they can hold a pre-disciplinary hearing, provided the employee and union are given at least five days’ notice. Within 10 days of the hearing, the chief is to issue a final decision in writing to the officer and the union, which the union may appeal in arbitration.
Like many municipal police departments in Connecticut, Norwalk also does not reduce police pensions based on an officer’s misconduct. Of the five accountability measures the ACLU of CT tracks via Project Flashlight, pension reductions are by far the least commonly practiced.
The project’s data notes only one municipality that reduces pension payments for disciplinary actions: New Haven. Per the city’s most recent CBA, which was in effect through June 30, 2022, officers who commit an “act of dishonesty or fraud” that leads to either a criminal conviction, plea of guilt, or no contest plea and are fired over that offense, the Board of Police Commissioners can revoke or reduce their retirement benefits, including “pension, retiree health care, and accrued payouts.”
The CBAs of municipal police departments assign disciplinary authority to a number of entities, some directly within the police department and some in local government. Among the different entities with disciplinary powers over officers across Connecticut are: boards of police commissioners, town managers, town chief administrators, town councils, chiefs of police, mayors, first selectman, the director of human resources, the personnel director, and a city’s labor relations director. In other municipalities, a chief executive officer is in charge of disciplining police. The town of Putnam also has a special services district. In several municipalities, the town has final disciplinary authority over police.
While CBAs across the state give the final authority in disciplinary matters to a number of different agencies, many of them follow similar protocols, which involve the chief of police conducting a preliminary investigation and then giving final authority to mete out punishment to a separate authority outside the police department, frequently either a board of police commissioners or a local official in town government.
The most direct form of disciplinary authority exists in CBAs that allow chiefs of police to handle discipline. Two towns in Connecticut follow this model.
According to Darien’s CBA, which is in effect through June 30, 2026, if misconduct is “very serious or is part of a continuing pattern of behavior involving repeated serious misconduct,” the police chief can impose a discipline of up to 5 working days and may also hold any portion of that in abeyance for a period of six months to one year as a deterrent. The CBA’s clause on discipline also stipulates that employees are entitled to have union representation if called to a meeting that may result in disciplinary action and that employees cannot be disciplined without due cause.
In a number of towns where boards of police commissioners hold disciplinary power, chiefs of police still have the authority to investigate disciplinary matters but do not have the final say in discipline. In Derby, where the CBA is in effect through June 30, 2024, the chief of police acts as an investigating officer in complaints against an officer and can decide if charges should be pursued or dropped. The chief can also propose disciplinary action at a hearing with the charged officer and a union. If an agreement is reached, the matter goes no further. If one isn’t, the matter enters into the grievance procedure laid out by the CBA, which is heard by the board of police commissioners.
Branford’s most recent CBA, which expired on June 30, 2022, allows the police chief to conduct informal preliminary inquiries into matters that may lead to disciplinary hearings against an officer. According to the CBA, if the chief and officer cannot agree on a “mutually agreeable resolution,” the chief can issue charges and hold a formal pre-disciplinary hearing.
Those pre-disciplinary hearings are closed to the public and require all witnesses to be sworn in. Accused officers are to receive letters informing them of the disposition of the hearing within five days. Branford is the only town of the three in which the police department does not have immediate disciplinary authority.
As in Branford, Norwalk’s CBA, in effect through June 30, 2024, allows the chief of police to hold a pre-disciplinary hearing, with five days notice, if suspension or discharge of an officer is being considered. Following the hearing, the chief has 10 days to issue a final decision in writing to the officer and to the police union. In the case an officer is arrested for a Class A or B felony, the chief can immediately place them on administrative leave without pay. If an officer is arrested on a Class C or D felony, or for a misdemeanor while on duty, the chief can place them on administrative leave without pay after 30 days.
Brookfield’s current CBA also has a similar procedure. While the chief of police has the authority to determine discipline for a violation of the department’s rules at an informal hearing, any consequences that call for suspension without pay, demotion or discharge proceed to a formal hearing with the police commission.
In Monroe’s CBA, which expired on June 30, 2022, the procedure is largely the same. The article on disciplinary action does not list a specific disciplinary procedure, beyond requiring that officers under investigation be supplied with materials that are part of that investigation before action is taken. Its grievance procedure gives the chief of police authority to meet with an officer who has filed a grievance and to render a decision. If no agreement is reached, the matter proceeds to the board of police commissioners. In 20 municipalities in Connecticut, the town manager has disciplinary authority over police officers
. As with those towns that give a board of police commissioners disciplinary authority, the town manager generally steps in to adjudicate a grievance after an initial investigation and decision by the chief of police and if the person who is the subject of that grievance is not satisfied with the outcome.
One of the key differences between these different systems of adjudicating disciplinary actions is the amount of time that elapses between an officer being charged with misconduct and being disciplined for it. In Darien, for example, there is no prescribed timeline for disciplinary action. The town’s CBA for police merely states that officers can have union representation at a meeting where disciplinary action may be taken and that they cannot be disciplined without just cause.
In Norwalk, discipline requires five days’ notice of a pre-disciplinary hearing and a decision within ten days following the hearing. Officers dissatisfied with the decision have an additional 10 days to appeal through arbitration.
In towns where an authority outside the department has final disciplinary authority, the timeline before an officer faces potential disciplinary action is more protracted.
In Branford, the decision in a pre-disciplinary hearing, which is conducted by either the chief of police or the board of police commissioners, must be given within five calendar days. If the matter proceeds to a formal hearing, overseen by the board of police commissioners, the case must be disposed of within 90 days.
In Brookfield, disciplinary matters involving pay, demotion, or discharge require a formal hearing, which goes before the police commission. The commission has 15 days following the hearing date to issue a ruling. The formal hearing follows an informal hearing with the chief of police.
Derby gives the police department’s internal affairs division 75 calendar days to conduct an investigation, plus a potential 21 additional days to account for “exigent circumstances.” Following the investigation, the chief of police has 10 days to decide if charges against an officer should move forward or be dropped. If the chief decides to move forward with a hearing, it must happen within 21 days of receipt of the investigation material. If an agreement is not reached, the matter moves to the grievance procedure, which is adjudicated by the board of police commissioners and involves a process that can take up to an additional 42 days.
In many towns with municipal police departments, boards of police commissioners exercise near final control—apart from the ability of unions to appeal decisions to arbitration—in numerous towns around the state. But their power goes beyond discipline. While 37 municipalities rely on police commissions to mete out discipline to officers, Project Flashlight records 50 municipalities with commissions. By law, all towns have the option to create a commission.
Police commissions do more than oversee disciplinary procedures. They are empowered by state law to generally manage and supervise police departments, make “all needful regulations” for governing the department, and can also “prescribe suitable penalties for the violation of such regulation, including suspension or removal from office of any officer or member of such police department.” Commissions, which by state statute can have either three, five, or seven members, also have sole power to appoint, promote, and remove police officers.
According to Barrett, commissions and CBAs can dovetail. Municipal statutes authorizing police commissions often give plenary power to the commission to create regulations and discipline authors who violate them. But some municipalities sign onto CBAs that give away the commission’s power. The town may also pass ordinances that strip the commission of authority.
In Fairfield, the town’s charter grants the police commission a number of powers guaranteed by state government, including the ability to “prescribe penalties for violations of its rules and regulations,” sole power over appointments and promotions in the department, and ability to determine rank and grade in the police department.
The town’s CBA, however, has a much more complex disciplinary process, which involves town officials but not the police commission. The CBA divides disciplinary matters into two categories: major and minor infractions. Major infractions are governed by policy laid out in the department’s rules and regulations manual.
For minor infractions, the CBA dictates a 30-day freeze or delay period that begins the day a verbal warning is issued. During this period, the officer can seek to have the union assist in having the infraction dismissed. It can be resolved either with approval by the chief of police, acceptance by the employee, or through the grievance process.
The grievance process begins with submission of a complaint to the chief of police, with copies going to the division commander, the board of police commissioners, and the human resources director. The chief meets with the employee who submitted the grievance and renders a decision. Further review goes to the human resources director and then to arbitration if necessary. The police commission is only peripherally involved in the process.
The CBA also allows the bargaining unit to have one representative on the retirement board, appointed by the first selectman. Additionally, it places limits on how promotions can be handled. Per the CBA, “Promotional examinations shall be held for all eligible employees as described in the Police Manual at the discretion of the Board of Police Commissioners to establish promotional lists.” However, the CBA dictates that the list must remain in existence between six months and one year. It also sets out requirements for promotions for certain positions. For example, the CBA dictates employees who apply to be promoted to the rank of detective in the department’s detective division and youth division have at least for years serving at the rank of patrolman. The CBA is an agreement between the town and the union Connecticut Organization for Public Safety Local 550 in this case. Despite the powers given to the police commission by the town charter, it intrudes upon certain powers granted to the commission.
Another concern with police commissions, according to Barrett, is who serves on them. In some cases, members have held the same seat “for ages” and some are also retired cops, who may have a conflict of interest in providing oversight for the department.
Residents also rarely have a direct say in who sits on police commissions. Though election is one method by which commission members are selected, it is not used as frequently as processes that involve appointment by a town official or a process by which a potential commission member is nominated and confirmed by the city council or board of selectmen. In total, 21 municipalities select police commissioners using an appointment process, 17 hold elections, and 11 use confirmations and nominations by town government. Thomaston uses a committee of the Board of Selectmen
CII asked Barrett whether residents of towns where CBAs don’t allow police departments to immediately discipline officers or where disciplinary action is removed from an officer’s record can be confident about the quality of policing. Barrett said it’s “hard to see how” that would be the case. He also suggested citizens review board, a popular community policing tool, may not be an effective way to introduce accountability to police departments either.
Citizen review boards or panels are usually instituted as a way of promoting community trust in policing. Per the mission statement of Westport’s civilian review panel, “The elected leadership of the Town of Westport and the leadership of Westport public safety departments recognize the need to foster and maintain the public’s trust in its personnel. In order to do so, the First Selectwoman has created the Civilian Review Panel (CRP).”
Westport’s CRP consists of five civilian members who represent the community, two members from the board of selectwoman, and several other appointments from within the community. It is charged with working with police, fire, and emergency services to “diversify hiring, oversee the investigation of civilian complaints, and evaluate opportunities to improve transparency and accountability.”
Westport’s CBA doesn’t specifically outline a protocol for handling civilian complaints, but the CBAs of other municipalities do. And if a town’s CRP claimed to have the authority to handle civilian complaints but the CBA said something different, the CBA would override the CRP.
“The devil in the details is the CBA. By the CBA, a municipality agrees to do/not do certain things. You can’t create a citizen review board that contravenes the CBA. For example, maybe the only person with disciplinary powers is the chief of police. If the town creates a citizen review board that says it can discipline the cops, the union is going to go to court and say it has a contract that says otherwise.” Barrett said.
So, what can residents do to promote accountability and better policing in their communities?
One option, according to Barrett, is figuring out how to get onto the police commission: determining whether members are elected or appointed and taking steps to put oneself in a position to be considered to serve on the commission.
Another good place to start is reading the CBA.
“It’s an incredibly useful source of information, explains a lot about how police work in any given spot.” Barrett said.
Another option is pressuring towns over the details of a CBA.
“One question for town/city residents is why does the town or city cede all of this control to its employees? You can’t blame the employees for asking. But the big question to ask is why do towns and cities/state agencies agree to those things? Local states and government have agreed to cede control over to the union?” Barrett continued. “I suspect, like a lot of things, one big portion in the possible pie chart of answers is nobody is really paying attention. Oftentimes the CBA is presented as a fait accompli.” Darrett said. He added that the ACLU previously found that Hartford’s city councilors weren’t given a copy of the contract they were voting on.
More frequently, the public often doesn’t get to see things such as the details of CBAs ahead of time. For those trying to advocate for change, that can be a problem as the CBA functions as a sort of roadmap for improving accountability measures.
“If you have some idea about what you want to do, see if it has been addressed in the CBA. Part of advocacy has to be to get that out of CBA in the next round of negotiations.” Barrett said.