NORWALK, Conn. – The Norwalk Police Department, under fire for the recent hiring and quick departure of two Bridgeport police officers, is revising its hiring practices.
“While our process is pretty standard with what’s done across the state, there are things that we thought we could do to improve that,” Chief Thomas Kulhawik said at Monday’s Police Commission meeting.
The announcement followed public commentary that touched on the controversial hirings, as well as what one speaker called “language justice” – the reported need for more officers who speak Spanish.
There’s “mistrust, in general, with especially our immigrant community here in Norwalk,” said Lauren Mallet, one of six speakers.
“We’re not really saying … ‘we’re against the police,’” Jalin Sead said. “But like this is just a criticism that that we see, especially with this problematic hiring … we want to have the same feeling about the police department that others have. And we want to feel protected and safe and not have this divide.”
The meeting came 17 days after Probationary Officers Mario Pericep and Chealsey Ortiz resigned just one day after being sworn in.
Pericep’s partner, James Boulay, shot and killed 15-year-old Jayson Negron in 2017 while the pair were investigating a stolen car report; the teen resisted arrest and Boulay reportedly feared for his life, reports say. Boulay was cleared of charges.
Ortiz was named as one of four defendants in a lawsuit alleging excessive force nearly three years ago. The plaintiff, Lisa Moragne, had listed Ortiz as “Jane Doe” when she filed the complaint herself in September, but a revised complaint filed by an attorney May 26 named all of the officers involved in the arrest. The Norwalk Police Department didn’t know about the lawsuit when Ortiz was offered employment, Kulhawik said.
When the information came to light, Mayor Harry Rilling released a statement saying he was “incredibly disappointed” that the Bridgeport Police Department hadn’t disclosed the allegations to the Norwalk Police Commission or Chief Kulhawik. He promised to swiftly hold a Commission meeting but Ortiz and Pericep exited before that could happen.
Pericip and Ortiz had no choice but to resign after Rilling objected because if a police officer gets fired in Connecticut, they automatically lose their certification, Lt. David O’Connor, president of Police Union Local 1727, said.
The changes Kulhawik announced Monday, which are yet to be approved, mainly affect potential hires from other police departments but there’s also an effort to get more new recruits: the entry level testing process will be revised to broaden its availability and increase the candidate pool.
Regarding the former, investigators use a checklist when evaluating lateral transfers and “some good ideas” have been raised to update it, Kulhawik said. This would include checking with the candidate’s previous police departments to see if there have been any internal investigations, even if the candidate was exonerated, and get copies if possible “so we can review it ourselves.”
The department is getting a quote on new software that would track background checks online, so department administrators and the Police Commission could “have full access to all the information at any given time,” he said. And, at the end of the process the Commission would interview the candidates, with all that background information at their fingertips.
Every candidate, whether experienced or entry-level, would be asked to fill out a new questionnaire, “certain questions we can ask until we actually give a formal offer,” he said.
“Then we can then be better able to vet any specific information that they provide,” Kulhawik said. “Specifically, to any high-profile incidents they were involved in, any firearms charges, if there were witness to any high-profile incidents, are they the subject of any civil suits. Have they been subject to a previous civil suit? Any investigations involving the State Police or the State’s Attorney or prior, if they’ve applied to other departments, or been refused by other departments?”
Much of that comes up in a polygraph test but, “we want to try to get that ahead of time,” he said.
In addition, the department plans to send the officers who do background checks to get additional training in a month or two, an “updated refresher course on conducting background investigations,” Kulhawik said.
As for entry-level candidates, Norwalk Police offers its own written test every two years, but now the City will sign up with the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association to be part of coordinated testing “around the state on an ongoing basis,” Kulhawik said. “So we basically can then recruit year round as opposed to just for one particular test.” The City has lost local candidates because it wasn’t testing when they were looking for a job, and “this will allow anyone interested in our agency pretty much to take the test within a month or so.”
Plus, the screening committee will “only have to interview three or four (candidates) a month” instead of a crush with 60 potential hires, he said.
“I think overall, I think it’s going to be a better system, give us a more-wide range of candidates and then be able to recruit on an ongoing basis as well for the entry level candidates,” Kulhawik said.
Police Commissioner Fran Collier-Clemmons called the proposals “excellent additions to what we’ve already been doing.”
“I think that we’re on the right road to fill in some gaps that we may not have been aware that we needed to look at. So thank you so much for that think tank,” she said.
Police Commissioner Kelly Straniti said they sound like “really good changes.” Her son is applying to be a police officer in various places but Norwalk isn’t testing now. “We’re losing a lot of local talent, to have the ability to do that on an ongoing basis, I think it’d be great.”
Sead also referred to comments O’Connor made to NancyOnNorwalk.
Norwalk Police officers are “really upset about how this was handled,” O’Connor said early this month. “If this is the amount of support they get from Norwalk, what will happen when if something goes wrong? Will they throw us away as far as they threw these officers? They felt management would have their back but they don’t feel that way now. It is so obvious that they will do what they have to do for the sake of expediency.”
He had pointed out that much of policing is discretionary, and said, “Because of things like this, cops be more reluctant to get involved, because the ramifications of getting involved.”
Sead called those thoughts “troubling.”
“After conversations with leaders in the city, I think we can all agree, if you do have a bad apple, we should throw him far away. And not have them representing the force and tarnishing the badge for officers that doing something good,” he said. “I think that we as the public just want to know that the police and the chief and everybody has the community’s back, and isn’t really going to protect that blue line… right now we can focus on just police community relations, where activists and people in urban communities, to make sure that we’re working things out instead of the kind of the ‘us versus them’ type of thing that seems to be going on.”
Iliana Zulinga had submitted a letter, Kulhawik said, reading it: Zulinga asked the Commission to support non-English speakers who need police services.
“This past week alone. Two people reached out to me through my group, Latinos Unidos Norwalk, to let me know that they were victims of abuse and when the police station to report the incidents. In both cases, they were told upon arrival that they needed to wait for someone that spoke Spanish,” she wrote.
Kulhawik said Zulinga’s reports had been investigated.
“In one instance that was reported, the Spanish speaking officer actually responded within 10 minutes to start the investigation. But because it required a detective that was the delay to get a detective in order to obtain written statements, etc. It gets a little more complicated at that point. I’m not familiar with the other incident in question,” Kulhawik said.
Max Cisneros also addressed that topic as a public speaker. Twenty seven percent of Norwalk’s residents are Hispanic and “I’d imagine that a great deal of that majority is people who do not speak English,” he said.
“I think the term ‘language justice’ is something that needs to be understood not just by the city, but by the department,” he said. “And it is a powerful way to describe individual’s fundamental right to have a voice be heard. I would imagine that the police department would want folks to make it easier for folks to report these incidents, whether they be thefts, rape, or sexual assault.”
Rilling replied, “I’m going to be speaking with the chief to find out and the deputy chiefs how we can find out how to enhance our ability because you’re right. There’s a large Hispanic population in our community and we want to make sure that they feel comfortable number one coming to the police department.”