Old Saybrook’s Police Commission Opts Out of Active Oversight

Broader disagreement over the value of civilian oversight frames local debate

OLD SAYBROOK — Last month, the Old Saybrook Police Commission codified the town’s approach to handling civilian complaints, which gives the chief of police direct oversight and effective control of letters addressed to the commission and commission members regarding personnel matters.

That approach was called into question earlier this year, after a letter of complaint postmarked March 2nd  was not circulated to commission members until September, according to commission member Renee Shippee.

The complaint was from a man who was pulled over in Old Saybrook in February along with his 13-year-old daughter. The man asked that his name not be used. He did not go into detail over what happened during the encounter, but he said he was not told the reason that he was pulled over until the end, when he was given a written warning for exceeding the speed limit. 

He wrote a letter of complaint to each member of the police commission and addressed them to the Old Saybrook Town Hall.

According to Carl Von Dassel, who was chair of the commission at the time the letters were received, the letters had been brought to the police department, where he had asked the chief to hold onto them. 

Von Dassel asked the chief to open the letter addressed to the chairman and read it to him. Since the other letters were carbon copies of the letter addressed to the chairman, Von Dassel decided not to do anything with the remainder of the letters, according to current Chairman of the Commission Frank Keeney. 

Shippee told CT Examiner that the person making the complaint, after discovering that the commission members hadn’t received his correspondence, hand-delivered the letters to Shippee’s house. She said she contacted Keeney, who picked up the letters, but did not distribute them. 

Frank Glowski, a former member of the commission, requested body camera video of the incident, but was denied his request, according to Shippee. The commission has yet to respond to the complaint, according to Shippee. 

According to rules approved in November, a draft of which was introduced by Chief of Police Michael Spera in the August meeting of the Police Commission, any complaint addressed to the commission or to a commissioner that regards a “personnel matter” — a complaint against an officer’s behavior, for example — is to be forwarded to the chief of police. The chief will be responsible for looking into the matter and taking any potential action. Commissioners will be informed of the “general nature” of the complaint.   

There is no requirement that complaints filed at the police department be shared with the police commission. There is also no set timeline by which the commissioners must be notified about the complaints. 

Commission member Alfred Wilcox proposed an alternative policy stating that citizen complaints addressed to the police commission would go to the chairman, who would then share the complaint with the commission. At that point, the complaint would be placed on the agenda for the following meeting, when the commission would decide how to handle the matter.

But at its October meeting, the commission declined to make a number of changes requested by members of the public and individual board members, like listing a member of the police commission as a point of contact on the website and using a recording secretary who was not employed by the police department. 

First Selectman Carl Fortuna generally supported the policy in an email to Keeney. Fortuna said that he “wholeheartedly agreed with” the idea that civilian complaints and discipline should be dealt with by the chief. 

“However, as for civilian complaints that are addressed to the Police Commission (PC) as a whole, and dealt with by a future Chief of Police and Chairman,” he wrote, “my only concern is that a pattern of complaints could in theory be hidden from the [Police Commission] over time.”

Neither Spera nor Keeney responded to requests to comment on this story.

Debating the role of civilian oversight

Framing the local debate in Old Saybrook is a larger disagreement over the value of civilian oversight of police departments.

According to Mel Medina, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, under Connecticut law, local police commissions actually have quite a bit of power that often goes unused. Commissions are often hesitant to fire officers who are brought to them for discipline. Members also sometimes voluntarily give up their executive or legislative powers through collective bargaining agreements.

Conn. Gen. Stat. § 7-277 invests police commissioners with “the sole power of appointment, promotion and removal of the officers and members of such police department.” 

The clerk of a police commission also has the power, under a separate statute, to subpoena individuals to testify before the commission. 

In addition, the Police Accountability Bill passed in July in a special session of the legislature, reiterates the power of police commissions to issue subpoenas and to “require the production for examination of any books and papers that such board deems relevant to any matter under investigation or in question.” 

“Unfortunately, what we have seen,” said Medina, “is that police commissions have failed in their duties to hold police accountable.”

According to John DeCarlo, a retired police officer and professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, however, the problem with civilian oversight is that members of the community and even elected officials often lack the skill set and the understanding of how best to improve operations within a police department.

“I look at police commissions, and I’m not overly impressed with what they’re giving to their police departments in the way of either oversight, guidance or organizational leverage,” said DeCarlo. 

DeCarlo said that Connecticut should have the ability to create an Inspector General’s office, which could oversee the small municipal police departments. He also envisions a national agency or an association of police chiefs that could create standards and hold local police departments accountable. 

“How do we hold them accountable? I think that we have to set up professional standards,” said DeCarlo. 

In contrast, Kalfani Nyerere Turè, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Quinnipiac University, suggested instead that police commissions and civilian review boards should not only have access to complaints, but that they should have the ability to investigate.  

“A civilian review board must be outfitted or resource with enough money to do proactive investigation,” he said.

According to Turè, citizen investigations into police departments are critical. He said these investigations can’t be left to prosecutors, who work too closely with police departments to be objective, or to politicians, who might try to get elected using “tough on crime” campaigns. Nor does he think the investigations should be left to the police department themselves. 

“I would argue that there’s a problem with police officers … being the arbitrator of what’s bad conduct,” said Turè. 

He suggested a dual reporting system that would take place through the police department and the civilian review board. 

But Turè also echoed Medina’s criticism that police commissions often shy away from holding the police accountable. 

“The problem with the police commissions by and large is that they’ve been over deferential to police. So they’ve worked-operated more in a sense of a board of directors, just putting their stamp of approval on police practices,” said Turè. 

A statewide minimum 

According to Old Saybrook Town Attorney Patrick McHale, who spoke during a meeting of the Police Commission in October, the role of the police commission in handling civilian complaints against members of the Old Saybrook Police Department is subject to General Order 4.6, a policy adopted by the department in 2016.

Old Saybrook’s policy was based on statewide guidance from the Police Officers Standards and Training Council, the body responsible for officer training and departmental accreditation.

In 2015, the state mandated that the council create a uniform policy for addressing civilian complaints. 

Council policy gives the chief of police authority over any investigations into complaints and gives the chief the authority to delegate investigations in whatever manner he chooses. The policy does not mention or provide guidance on the appropriate role of police commissions.

According to Karen Boisvert, the academy administrator at the council, the policy reflects only the minimum standards for how police departments should address complaints. Because not all towns have police commissions, Boisvert said, the council did not include them in the statewide guidance.

She said, however, that local police departments are welcome to adapt the policy to fit their particular town.  

In East Lyme, for example, the power to delegate investigations resides with the First Selectman. 

Guilford adopted rules that empower its police commission to investigate complaints independent from — or in cooperation with — the town’s chief of police. Their policy also requires that complaints made against the chief of police be forwarded to the chair of the police commission. 

Old Saybrook’s policy is a nearly verbatim reflection of the council’s general policy, placing investigative powers under the jurisdiction of the chief of police, without mention of a role for the town’s commission. 

According to Old Saybrook Town Attorney Patrick McHale, General Order 4.6 requires that the police commission must pass all correspondence regarding personnel to the police chief. 

Wilcox, who was practicing lawyer for 40 years before joining the commission, said that he didn’t believe that General Order 4.6 applied to the actions of the police commission, given that it is a policy adopted by the police department. 

Wilcox said that he is concerned by the fact that all complaints about officers — including complaints about the chief — are sent to the chief.  

“I think it has a chilling effect, frankly,” said Wilcox. 

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