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New London police union defends use of website

New London — The local police union president calls the commentary on its union website free speech protected by the First Amendment.

A special committee assigned to review New London police policies deems some of the posts to be unprofessional and threatening.

The Public Safety Policy Review Committee has recommended that the police department strengthen personnel policies and clamp down on use of social media by officers who are using online forums for personal or political views and has called on the union, “either by policy or practice,” to stop targeting individuals.

It was one of a host of recommendations contained in a report issued last week that looks to improve police accountability and community relations, prevent police misconduct and bolster training and diversity at the department.

“No one’s going to tell us what to put on our union website, period,” local police union President Todd Lynch said in a recent interview.

Lynch expressed disappointment that the committee never contacted elected union officials for input, considering they would have to be involved in any changes being implemented. He said criticisms expressed against individuals on the union’s website, newlondonpoliceunion.com, are the union’s defense against what he called “anti-police” sentiment. The website also is used to highlight officer achievements and advertise things like fundraisers.

But the committee considered some of the union’s posts threatening in nature, and New London police officers’ posts on social media are “perceived as inappropriate, hostile and bullying.”

“It will be impossible for police to develop a trusting relationship with the community if this kind of behavior continues and becomes endemic to police culture in New London,” the report states.

While the committee did not cite specific examples in its report, Police Community Relations Committee member Kris Wraight has been a frequent target of the union. Her image, with accompanying caption “The poison pen ... at it again!” appears on the union website, with criticism of her push for the committee to become involved in police contract negotiations.

Wraight has spoken at a variety of forums about her support for reducing the police budget and interest in expanding the role of her committee for better police oversight. The Police Community Relations Committee reviews completed investigations into complaints against police but has no power to change outcomes.

Lynch said it was remarkable that someone who displays such bias would still be a member of the committee.

“You want to silence us but appoint her to spread negative rhetoric about us?” Lynch said. “Let’s face it, she’s anti-police. She attacks us in every way possible. We’re defending ourselves.”

Wraight, in an emailed response on Thursday, said her photo on the website does bother her but she is more bothered “by the impunity the Union President seems to believe the NLPD should operate with.”

“My critiques of the NLPD aren't anti-police they're Pro-Justice. And they draw from a myriad of wrong-doing done by individual officers, the administration and the system as a whole,” Wraight said. “Unfortunately, when light is shed on the injustice of particular practices, instead of taking responsibility for the mistakes and harms done by an individual officer or the police system, the community is met with defensiveness and hostility by the Police Union President.”

“New London deserves a police department that respects all of our city’s residents, feels accountable to all and welcomes all their critiques and feedback,” Wraight said.

Lynch said the union website also is used to criticize decisions by city officials, such as the move by the City Council to remove the department’s armored military vehicle obtained through a federal surplus equipment program.

The criticism of the union’s website was just one item in a host of recommendations made in the committee’s report, which calls for formation of a citizens police review board and a charter change for the creation of a police commission, which would redefine the role of the Police Community Relations Committee.

Members of the committee discussed their findings at a public forum on Thursday.

Florence Clarke, a retired pastor and member of the committee, said one of the larger takeaways should be the need in the city to have the resources to send someone in addition to a police officer to respond to some 911 calls.

The committee has recommended a boost in resources for the city’s Human Services Department to help bridge that gap, but several members expressed frustration that changing the existing model of policing, with things like the creation of specialized units to address mental health issues, would require more funding.

Committee member Jerry Fischer addressed the union website issue and said he hopes for more direct engagement with the police union and a citywide social media policy. “It’s too easy to say it’s a free speech issue. It’s much more difficult than that,” he said.

John McKnight, facilitator for the Public Safety Policy Review Committee, said the committee did not meet with union officials, but work by the committee was observed by police Chief Peter Reichard and Capt. Brian Wright. McKnight asked participants in the meeting to be vigilant and hold police to a higher standard when it comes to public statements they make on social media.

Lynch said police officers are interested in any changes that would create a better police department but he expects officers to have a seat at the table when those changes are discussed, "whether they like what we have to say or not."

In a related forum, The Day and Connecticut College will host a virtual event at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 27, called Conversations on Race: Policing in the U.S. and New London.

This event will feature opening remarks from Debo Adegbile, Conn Class of '91, a partner at WilmerHale Law, and Ronald Davis, former director of the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services under the Obama administration. Adegbile and Davis worked together with the U.S. Mayors Conference to produce an extensive report on police reform and racial justice. Their remarks will be followed by a panel discussion about police reform in New London.

Registration for the event is available at elevate.conncoll.edu/events/. Readers can send questions for the panel to Karen Florin, Day audience engagement editor, at k.florin@theday.com.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version clarifies that Florence Clarke said the city needs to have the resources to send someone in addition to a police officer when responding to some 911 calls.

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