OLD SAYBROOK — Since 2009, staff and officer turnover at the Old Saybrook Police Department has far outstripped other departments in the region — a fact that former officers attribute to a toxic work environment within the department.
Although the Old Saybrook Police Department has not provided CT Examiner with employment data requested in a Nov. 12 Freedom of Information request, a number of former officers, as well as past and present members of the town’s police commission, provided documents and spoke on the record to explain and confirm the unusual employment data.
A document compiled by a former officer with the department identifies 28 officers who left the Old Saybrook Police Department between 2009 and 2020.
The comparably-sized Clinton Police Department has had just 16 officers leave over the same period, according to data provided by the Clinton Police Department. Waterford, which employs nearly twice the number of officers, had 26 police officers leave since 2009, according to data provided by the department.
In an initial emailed response to the Freedom of Information request, Spera wrote that “an FOI request does not require a public agency to create a document to satisfy an inquiry.”
Frank Glowski, a former member of the Old Saybrook Police Commission from Nov. 2017 to March 2019, called the turnover in the department “ridiculous,” when he spoke to CT Examiner in October.
“As commissioner, I couldn’t even keep track of who was coming and going,” said Glowski.
During police commission meetings on Sept. 24, 2018 and Jan. 13, 2020, Chief of Police Michael Spera — who was promoted from deputy chief to chief of the department in 2009 — explained the high turnover as a matter of better benefits offered to employees in neighboring departments.
Spera did not respond to a Dec. 9 request for comment on the specific allegations contained in this story.
In an email on Thursday, First Selectman Carl Fortuna said he was unaware of the allegations being brought forward by these officers, but said that if any laws had been broken, this should be “brought to light immediately.”
Officers go on the record
The Connecticut Examiner spoke with five officers who have previously worked for the Old Saybrook Police Department.
Mark Testoni, who briefly worked with the Old Saybrook Police Department in 2018, after 21 years as a state trooper, said that money wasn’t the problem.
“The pay is pretty good there. You’re not leaving because of pay,” he said.
According to Shannon Miller-Warren, a former sergeant with the department, the pay at the department was slightly higher than that of other departments and the benefits were equal.
A comparison of salary schedules from Clinton, Old Saybrook and East Lyme from the years 2019-20 shows that a rookie patrolman in Old Saybrook earned about $61,235 — less than the same position in Clinton ($67,967), but more than in East Lyme ($57,678). A senior patrolman in Old Saybrook earned $75,692 in the same year, compared with $72,919 in Clinton and $75,067 in East Lyme.
Miller-Warren did say that a lack of time off may have discouraged officers from coming to Old Saybrook from other departments. Officers hired by Old Saybrook are required to work 12 extra “administrative” days each year.
CT Examiner spoke with a number of officers who blamed a toxic work environment within the department as the reason for leaving the Old Saybrook Police Department.
In a number of interviews, former officers with the department described being punished for speaking up about their concerns — having shifts eliminated and being berated and humiliated, sometimes in front of colleagues.
One former officer, who agreed to speak on the record only if his name was withheld, told CT Examiner that he had moved to another department in the area despite a significant cut in pay.
Miller-Warren, a former K-9 officer with the Old Saybrook Police Department, said she retired her dog relatively early with the thought of moving to another police department. Miller-Warren stayed 10 years until she could receive a vested pension and then left. She was promoted to sergeant two months prior to her departure.
“I realized I could not affect any change,” she explained.
As a Field Training Officer, Miller-Warren said she trained 17 new recruits between the years 2016 and 2018. She said that normally, an officer would train four over a career.
According to a number of former officers, the work requirement for a police officer to be promoted to sergeant was reduced from 4 years to 3 years, because of the difficulty of keeping experienced officers employed with the department — despite pay for senior officers meeting or exceeding neighboring departments.
In a Nov. 15 email, Spera explained that officers choose to leave police departments for a variety of reasons.
“Typically, smaller Police Departments have a higher rate of turnover than larger Agencies. This is usually due to lack of advancement and lack of career diversity opportunity (specialized units) that smaller Departments offer. Also the desire to seek more equitable workloads, as well as better compensation and benefits are other reasons to seek employment elsewhere,” wrote Spera.
A record of departures compiled by a former officer in the department, based on conversations and long-standing relationships with fellow officers, suggests that of 28 officers who left the Old Saybrook Police Department, 18 left because they were unhappy with the department. And half of those 18 both joined and left the department within the eleven-year period between 2009 and 2020.
Several of the officers who spoke to CT Examiner were named in this list. Minutes from the police commission and additional reporting confirm the departure of the officers listed.
The record of departures also names 20 dispatchers who left the department within the same time period. Thirteen of the 20 are listed as leaving because of unhappiness with the department.
Testoni had worked at the Mashantucket Police Department prior to joining the Old Saybrook Police Department, but said that he decided to apply to work in Old Saybrook because there was an opportunity to work the day shift.
Testoni said he intended to stay in Old Saybrook for between three and five years, but after six months in the department, he asked for a transfer back to Mashantucket. The other officers, he said, were not surprised.
“They were surprised that I lasted as long as I did,” he said. “There was a running bet in the department that I wouldn’t last three months.”
Testoni said he saw things that disturbed him about how the department was run.
“I saw some things that I never would have done as a police officer,” he said.
Allegations of misconduct and overwork
Former officers told CT Examiner that as chief of police, Spera regularly participated in routine calls. Miller-Warren said that she witnessed Spera order officers to enter a dwelling without a warrant, and Testoni said he once witnessed Spera order officers to search a car without permission.
Miller-Warren said that there were times when she and her colleagues found themselves apologizing for Spera’s behavior.
According to Miller-Warren, when Spera became police chief he eliminated misdemeanor summons, with the exception of motor vehicle charges. This meant that officers were required to bring individuals committing minor infractions to the station for processing, rather than releasing them on their own recognizance until a scheduled court appearance. Miller-Warren said that in practice this required an additional three to four hours of work for officers to process each individual.
Testoni said that Spera was an excellent emergency management director, but had an “overbearing” and “overshadowing” presence — a claim that other officers echoed. Testoni also said that the chief’s constant presence made it difficult for supervisors to do their jobs.
Miller-Warren, Testoni and one other officer also complained that they were required to work a high number of overtime hours. Miller-Warren said that officers were forced into work regularly to cover construction jobs, and that officers burned out from a lack of staffing.
According to Testoni and Miller-Warren, Spera controlled the work schedule and whether officers were approved for vacation days.
Testoni and one other officer alleged that some officers were favored by the chief, while others — generally those who questioned his decisions — were penalized.
One former officer with the department, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that after he voiced concerns, his shift was eliminated and he was forced to handle tasks that would normally have been given to lower-ranking officers. He also alleged that the chief made derogatory comments about him and others in front of colleagues.
According to Testoni, people who were on the chief’s “good side” were treated well, and those employees that pushed back against the chief ended up on the “wrong list.”
“The reason that most people leave is really because of who’s at the top,” Testoni said.
Little evidence of formal complaints
Renee Shippee, who has sat on the town’s police commission since 2017, told CT Examiner that no officers had ever come to the commission with a complaint about the department. However, she said she still wasn’t convinced that poor benefits were the driving force behind so many officers leaving.
“I think if you left only for those reasons, why wouldn’t you just say that,” said Shippee.
Shippee also said that it didn’t make sense that such a large number of officers had decided on a change in career.
“If they don’t think the job is what it is, why do they leave to become police officers in other towns?” she asked.
Shippee said she wished the commission had more access to exit interviews to allow the commission to address such concerns in the process of interviewing new hires. According to Shippee, the commission had asked for exit interviews, but were told that the officers hadn’t completed them.
Glowski confirmed this, adding that although he remembered at least nine or ten officers who left during his tenure on the commission, he could recall only ever seeing one exit interview, from an officer who left the department to start her own business.
Alfred Wilcox, also a member of the police commission, told CT Examiner in October that he believes the town’s police commission, rather than the chief of police, should be responsible for conducting exit interviews with officers.
Asked about the apparent lack of completed exit interviews, an officer who spoke with CT Examiner said that he left his blank, because he didn’t believe the police commission or town first selectman would intervene. The officer did say, however, that if there was a formal opportunity for officers to speak to members of town government, many would be willing to do so.
Miller-Warren said she chose not to give an exit interview, and Testoni said he told the interviewer that his reason for leaving was “personal.” Both said they were concerned about jeopardizing future employment opportunities.
“For the most part on a human level the chief was good to me and still is,” said Testoni. “But the professional part of me knows what happens there is wrong and should be dealt with.”
Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify that Testoni and Miller-Warren say that they separately witnessed incidents of misconduct.
Miller-Warren said that she witnessed Spera order officers to enter a dwelling without a warrant, and Testoni said he once witnessed Spera order officers to search a car without permission.