Connecticut's police chiefs want to know why they aren't being trusted to decide when people in their town shouldn't get a pistol permit.
After a notable arrest earlier this year, the Channel 3 Eyewitness News I-Team asked Chief Investigative reporter Eric Parker to dig into the process, and what he found could surprise you.
The law in Connecticut makes a local police chief the person who decides on the permit application.
If you apply and get denied, or have a permit and then get it revoked when you commit a crime, the place to appeal is the Board of Firearms Permit Examiners.
They conduct hundreds of hearings, and have the tough task of deciding when police are wrong, and in those cases they give a permit to someone who they hope won't betray their trust.
Middletown police didn't think Tawana Bourne should have a pistol permit because they knew her too well.
"Two times, um, we had to commit her to the hospital for a mental evaluation and she displayed knives during those interactions," said Middletown police Lt. Heather Desmond.
But Bourne explained that she'd kicked her drug habit and turned her life around since then.
She was convincing.
The board voted to give her a permit, overriding the decision made by her local police department.
Just over two years later, Bourne proved that Middletown may have known best.
Police in Newington said she got in an argument with another mom at the Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant.
Police said she pulled out a gun and loaded a bullet into the chamber. She was charged with risk of injury to a minor, threatening, breach of peace, and reckless endangerment.
Her case is still pending.
"When you start to bring their truthfulness into question, or their suitability into question, or their character into question, that's where we as an issuing authority have to put our foot down and say, I don't think this person is suitable to have a permit to carry a pistol or a revolver," said South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed. "And then to have that decision second-guessed by the board and have them substitute their opinion for our opinion is difficult for all of us as chief's to accept that."
Reed said he has recently called for changes to the process on behalf of the Connecticut Police Chief's Association. He said local chiefs are in the best position to make these decisions about people in their towns.
The I-Team has been digging through the records and attending appeals hearings.
Earlier this month our cameras were in Wethersfield when Andrew Malerba's appeal was heard.
Police said in January he fired several shots from the front door of his home in his Quaker Hill neighborhood at 2 a.m. Police said that when they searched the home they found several other weapons, including a loaded gun under his sleeping wife's pillow. His misdemeanor charges are still pending, but after hearing from Malerba that this was a simple lapse in judgment, the board voted 4 - 3 to return his permit.
"I think the hearing that you filmed may have lasted two hours, if not more, and it just shows how much attention the Board gives to each individual case," said attorney Rachel Baird, of Torrington.
Baird represented Malerba, and has appeared before the board dozens of times over the years. She also sued the board six years ago because at the time, it averaged 24 months before they heard an appeal and she felt that infringed on people's second amendment right to bear arms.
She said things are getting better.
"The board has greatly improved over the last five or six years," she said.
But there are still calls for change.
Reed worked on behalf of the Connecticut Police Chief's Association on legislative efforts to revamp the whole system. An early proposal to do away with the board was scuttled quickly. In the end, the new gun law recently signed by Gov. Dannel Malloy adds a retired judge and a mental health professional to the board and limits a person to one application for a pistol permit every 12 months. Reed said the hope is to improve the decorum of the process.
"It's just a tribunal that doesn't seem to be as formal or as judicial as someone would expect when they show up," Reed said.
And the hearings are somewhat freewheeling. The I-Team reviewed audio recordings from dozens of hearings dating back to 2008.
It heard cases where the board clearly explains to the police officer that they simply didn't bring enough evidence.
And the hearings are notoriously long.
In a letter from Manchester's chief to the board complains about one hearing that began at noon and didn't conclude until 5 a.m. the next morning.
When Bourne was arrested in February, the board called her case an anomaly, saying they know of few cases where they returned a permit and the person then got arrested with a gun.
The I-Team's review shows consistent results.
The I-Team dug into board records going back to 2008. It considered only cases decided on their merits, where the board had to hear evidence and decide whether a person is a suitable candidate or not.
Over the past five years, the board overturned the decision made by police between 30 and 40 percent of the time.
A look at 2013 so far, shows a quarter of the appeals resulted in police essentially losing. Still the Police Chiefs Association wonders if their decision to withhold a permit is being given enough respect, and the I-Team found some cases that highlight their frustrations.
In a 2011 hearing, the board heard from Brandon Chartier who was denied because Bristol police said when he filled out the pistol permit application, and swore it was true, he failed to tell them he was once the subject of a criminal protective order.
It was the fourth time he was rejected.
Earlier rejections came because of his criminal record and because he had once threatened suicide with a rifle.
After hearing details of the case, the board went ahead and decided to grant his request for a permit.
"When we see that somebody puts on their permit application that they haven't been arrested and then we run their record and find that they have been arrested, and been convicted, and paid a fine or served a sentence, that certainly goes to their truthfulness which ultimately goes to their suitability to have a permit," Reed said.
Conviction for certain violent crimes result in automatic rejections.
Those cases are easy.
The board's job is to determine suitability. It's the magic phrase that police use when there's no clear cut reason for denying a permit. It has no legal definition. The case of Daniel Febus shows the delicate balance.
State police revoked his permit when he was arrested by Waterbury police because on the very same day he got his pistol permit, alarmed neighbors called 911 when he was spotted showing off his new gun to friends.
The board voted to give him another chance and returned the permit.
There's no record that he's had any trouble with the law since. In other cases, the board makes its reason for going against police very clear.
When Monroe police withheld a permit from a local man who they said they once found in possession of stolen property, the board felt police were totally out of line.
Baird said the tough questions of suitability and the fact that most people here don't have lawyers, is why hearings must be informal.
"What is suitable? To you something suitable, to someone else it's not.," Baird said. "And so how else could the board be but to be a little informal, to really get into people's lives, to try to get to know people, to predict the future, to look at what's happened in the past, how could it be formal?"
For his part, Reed is satisfied for now with the changes coming to the board. He said he thinks having additional experience in the meetings will help, and after digging into the process, he thinks police chiefs should also look at their own process, so when they really believe someone should be denied, they can put on a good enough case to win.
"There may be cases where a department wasn't as prepared as they should be," Reed said.
Baird said the extra voices at the table can't hurt. She said she'd like to see cases heard even quicker, but thinks the board is doing their best at a tough job.
"The time that they put into it, and the consideration that they put into it, whether you agree with their decision or not at the end, it's really hard to say that they made their decision based on a personal agenda or a personal opinion and didn't do their best to follow the law," Baird said.
The I-Team asked the board if they wanted to comment for this story but they declined.
The only real alternative to the board would be to force everyone who wants to appeal to take their case right to superior court.
But this has drawbacks for both sides.
The person appealing may have a harder time navigating the system without a lawyer, and the police chiefs couldn't just send an officer to explain the denial - they'd have to turn the case over to their lawyers.
While the results may be more predictable, the costs for everyone will go up.
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