OLD SAYBROOK — The town’s Police Commission voted 5-2 on Monday night not to pursue an investigation into the conduct of Chief of Police Michael Spera in response to allegations made by former officers in the Old Saybrook Police Department.
Alfred “Chub” Wilcox made a motion to request that the Board of Selectmen fund the commission to hire a lawyer with “expertise in constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The lawyer would interview former and current members of the department, assess the legality of Spera’s orders and practices and report the findings confidentially to the commission.
Wilcox and Renee Shippee voted in favor of the investigation.
“In my mind, this is a very serious concern,” said Wilcox. “We have heard in executive session from Chief Spera on his perspective, but we have not heard from the former officers who first raised the issue.”
Commissioner Susan Quish countered that the officers never spoke with the commission or raised the issue in an exit interview, or brought their concerns to the police union or to another sergeant.
“If they want to [swear out a statement], then they can take the next step,” said Commission Chair Frank Keeney.
The commission also voted not to pursue a study of staffing levels in the department, opting instead to table the issue indefinitely.
Keeney said he believed that during a pandemic was not the right time to undertake the study, and asked the commission to table the proposal for at least nine months and “not even talk about it.”
Other commissioners suggested waiting until after the department has received accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, or CALEA, a process they expected to take one or two years to complete. The Police Accountability legislation passed last summer requires that local police departments obtain CALEA accreditation no later than 2025.
Commissioner Carl Von Dassel said that to pursue an independent study and CALEA accreditation at once was “redundant,” given that CALEA would look at the organization of the department as part of its evaluation process.
Regrettable and non-regrettable turnover
The commission votes followed a presentation by Spera, in response to a request in January by First Selectman Carl Fortuna, to examine the issue of turnovers in the department. The request counted 32 officers who had left the police commission during Spera’s tenure as chief of police, which began in 2009.
In his presentation, Spera confirmed the 32 departures from Old Saybrook’s police department since 2009, explaining that five left because they failed to pass field training, two failed to complete their probation period, nine retired, 15 resigned voluntarily and one resigned due to a medical condition.
The department, according to Spera, did not have a turnover problem, but that officer retention was a challenge on the state and national level as well. Spera said that his second-in-command, Captain Jeffrey DePerry, spoke with more than 40 law enforcement agencies about the issue, which some characterized as “a revolving door.”
Spera further divided departmental turnovers into two categories: “regrettable turnover” — the loss of a valued professional — and “non-regrettable turnover,” when an employee chooses to leave or “is encouraged to leave” because they are perhaps not a good fit for the department.
Spera said that the majority of the turnover in the Old Saybrook Police Department was “non-regrettable.”
Against the backdrop of one slide, “Bad Hires Yield Turnover,” Spera explained that the department had adopted an accelerated hiring process to compensate for what he described as Old Saybrook’s comparatively low benefits and salaries.
Spera said that he has made mistakes when recommending certain applicants to the Police Commission and that he faces a shallow applicant pool and political pressure to fill positions.
Spera also said that he has asked employees to voluntarily resign after they had exhibited what he described as “risky behavior” including prejudice, untruthfulness, failure to supervise, sexual harassment and favoritism. He said that some employees, after being disciplined, become “argumentative,” “hold ill will” and become “very passive aggressive” — situations that Spera said led to “non-regrettable turnover.”
“I have described myself to you as one who has high expectations for employees,” said Spera. “One might think that my expectations for employees are perhaps too high.”
“Difficult employees blame their bosses for getting caught violating workplace rules,” he added.
“A new plague of employee misconduct”
Spera also suggested the pandemic as a reason for potential additional turnover, saying that the additional stress and challenges had caused “a new plague of employee misconduct” that the department had not previously encountered.
“More employees, many of whom truly know better, made poor decisions and/or choices during the past year,” he said.
Spera also questioned the value of employee exit interviews.
“I am concerned that because we have made such a public spectacle about our exit interview process, that it has diminished the value of the process,” said Spera.
He said that the majority of those who completed the interviews cited low salaries and lack of benefits as their reason for leaving. “Martyr-style” exit interviews, Spera explained, completed by “disgruntled ex-employees, as a last chance to ‘get the last word’ or ‘settle a score,’ are highly uncredible.”
Spera suggested instead the value of what he called “stay interviews” — asking that police officers complete a self-evaluation and suggest improvements within the department and in their own performance.
Spera’s recommendations for decreasing employee turnover included more personal leave time, long-term retirement benefits, professional development and higher wages, as well as raising the hiring age from 21 to 25.
The commission responds
Commissioners Joseph Maselli, Ken Reid, Quish, Von Dassel and Keeney praised Spera for the thoroughness of his presentation.
“I want you to continue to have your high standards, and continue to raise the bar.” Quish told Spera. “It is a very difficult environment.”
Wilcox and Shippee said that they wanted to hear additional perspectives. Shippee said she would like to talk with former employees to “hear their side of the story.” Wilcox agreed. “I think we have to consider other people’s perspectives,” said Wilcox. “I practiced law for 40 years, I know you don’t just hear from one side. You hear from both.”
CT Examiner has an outstanding Freedom of Information request, dated January 25, for any correspondence relating to claims of a toxic culture at the Old Saybrook Police Department, or related to claims of illegal searches by officers.