NORWALK, Conn. — Last week’s sentencing of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to 22.5 years for the world-changing death of George Floyd showed the system works, says Lt. David O’Connor, president of Police Union Local 1727.
It’s due process, he said, expressing a wish that the results of due process for former Bridgeport cops Mario Pericep and Chealsey Ortiz were respected, that once it was found “there was nothing there,” that they’d be allowed to move on with their lives.”
“Wouldn’t that have been fair?” he asked.
O’Connor, in the interview with NancyOnNorwalk, defended police unions from the national criticism they’re receiving, calling it “insanity” that there’s “a new culture of making police unions scapegoats for every ill in society,” and said local activist Jalin Sead had it wrong recently when characterized statements O’Connor had made as reflecting an “us versus them” attitude.
“I am anything but ‘us versus them,’” O’Connor said.
Early this month, Pericep and Ortiz were forced to resign as new hires by the Norwalk Police Department a day after being sworn in, following public outcry regarding incidents in their backgrounds that the Norwalk Police Commission missed: the fatal shooting by Pericep’s partner, James Boulay, of 15-year-old Jayson Negron, and an excessive force lawsuit naming Ortiz as a defendant. Boulay was cleared of charges; Bridgeport has moved to dismiss the suit that named Ortiz.
Mayor Harry Rilling said neither incident was disclosed by the Bridgeport Police Department, and, “I thank the community for bringing this situation to our attention on social media, sending emails, and making phone calls. We heard you.”
Pericep’s background was known to Norwalk Police while it had just become public that Ortiz was targeted in a lawsuit. Rilling said he was “incredibly disappointed” that the Police Commission wasn’t informed and promised a fast Police Commission meeting to review the situation.
If Pericep and Ortiz had been fired, they would have automatically lost their State certification. O’Connor said they had no choice but to resign.
At last week’s meeting of the Norwalk Police Commission, Chief Thomas Kulhawik outlined potential changes in the department’s hiring process brought about by the recent episode. They include checking with other police departments to find out whether there have been internal investigations for candidates, even if they were exonerated.
“That’s fair,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said the problem with the treatment Pericep and Ortiz got after being hired by Norwalk is that much of policing is discretionary, and Norwalk Police can see the consequences other officers are facing for doing something like pursuing a stolen car. This could result in a reluctance by police to become involved, because “if you do get involved, you could be branded for the remainder of your life.”
The real losers, O’Connor said earlier this month, “are the citizens.” He called Pericep and Ortiz community-oriented, smart, analytic thinkers who would have done well in Norwalk.
Citizens will be less safe and, “That’s the problem with that’s a problem with police accountability,” O’Connor said.
Sead brought up O’Connor’s thoughts when addressing the Police Commission last week.
“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,” Sead said. Police department “bad apples” need to be thrown away and rather than a “protect the blue line” approach, there needs to be a focus on police community relations “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.”
“I’m hurt by that,” O’Connor said. “Because I don’t think that’s the way we operate at all. I think we operate in a very open and candid manner. I don’t think any of us are ‘us versus them’ anymore.”
O’Connor stressed his approachability, a willingness to talk it out with anyone and said he’d love to talk to Sead. “Us versus them” is an “outdated mentality” and “if we don’t evolve, we’re going to go the way of the dodo bird.”
But, “The way policing is done is evolving. And police officers are evolving with it,” O’Connor said.
CNN reported in May that “15 unions that represent law enforcement officers across the US have endorsed a blueprint for policing that includes an unprecedented shift in the way unions protect bad police officers…. A committee convened by the AFL-CIO, International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Service Employees International Union calls on more than 250,000 law enforcement members and more than 100,000 members in police-adjacent professions to intervene when another union member is doing something wrong.”
An article in The Atlantic last week asks, “why there should be police unions at all,” alleging “a system that creates and protects bad apples by design.”
Adam Serwer’s article, “The Authoritarian Instincts of Police Unions” states that, “Police unions are unlike any other form of organized labor. A teacher who pulls out a gun and shoots a student cannot avoid prosecution if the school fails to investigate the incident within five days.”
O’Connor said unions don’t protect bad apples, they just make sure the bad apples get the “exact same due process” anyone is entitled to. Unions exist to negotiate contracts, make sure they’re followed.
“We can’t go on strike. And we can’t do job actions, we can only do what we can do,” he said.
He took particular exception to the “five days” comment.
“The way our contract is written, you have a year to receive the complaint, if it’s a regular complaint of regular routine misconduct. However, if it is a violation of law and there’s an arrest made, you have an unlimited amount of time to investigate that.”
The police contract available online states that Internal Affairs has 60 days to investigate a felony arrest and can get an addition 30 days with the Chief’s consent.
No union “wants to negotiate leniency for the misuse of violence by its members,” O’Connor said, calling that notion “insane.” Unions want their members to be judged by “someone who understands why it was used, and what the proportional amount of violence to be used in any given situation.”
The trouble is that people think policing is the way it’s portrayed on television, and it’s not, he said.
“I think that until you do it, you can’t really understand what it is. Until you walk a mile in a police officer shoes, it is virtually impossible to understand what policing is, and the decisions that you have to make on a call-by-call basis,” O’Connor said. “A lot of times there is no right decision, there are better decisions or worse decisions.”
He also disagreed with the idea that the police can’t investigate themselves.
“As you can see, from what has happened in the Norwalk Police Department in the recent past, we are fully capable of investigating ourselves,” O’Connor said.
Officers Michael DiMeglio and Sara Laudano were arrested in January after what a press release called a “comprehensive investigation by Norwalk Police Detective Division Supervisors.”
“I think the notion that we’re not capable of policing ourselves is just pie in the sky. It’s a narrative for people who want to make the police department what they think it should be not what it needs to be,” O’Connor said.
Norwalk Police officers are “really upset” about the way the Pericep/Ortiz situation was handled, he said. Pericep “did nothing that day” and “we’re making him a bad guy, for no reason.” The message is, “Don’t get involved. Because if you do get involved, you could be branded for the remainder of your life.”
He agreed that many people don’t have faith in the system, and therefore are skeptical of Boulay being cleared. “It’s not a flawless system. But it’s a pretty good system. And it’s pretty fair, and it works pretty well most of the time,” he said. “But … just because you don’t like the outcome, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.”
Chauvin “was given a fair opportunity, and he’s in jail for the next 22 years. That was justice,” O’Connor said.
“I think there was nobody more guilty of an O.J. Simpson,” O’Connor said. “He was found not guilty. Just have to go with it, as much as it sucks. He went to trial; he had a better case than the prosecutor had and he was found not guilty. … You can’t live your whole time saying ‘you’re guilty’ because he wasn’t – he wasn’t ‘guilty,’ he was found ‘not guilty.’ Change your thought pattern…. You gotta live with it.”