If the Police Commission is a ‘Board of Directors,’ Then We Should Act Like One

At our last meeting I was once again the object of multiple accusations, by both the Chief and some of the Commissioners. In light of those accusations, I think I owe it to the Department and to our community to explain where I am coming from. I also think the other Commissioners owe it to me to let me have the uninterrupted few minutes that explanation will take.

First of all, it seems to me it should be taken as a given that anyone who volunteers to serve on any Town board or commission does so because she or he wants to contribute to making Old Saybrook the best place to live that it can be. In the case of the Police Commission, that means helping to make our police department be the very best it can be with the resources the Town dedicates to it. And as I have said many times, I think there are many good things about our police department, up to and including the Chief. Our experiences through the pandemic only reinforce that conclusion. But I also think it is possible that there may be ways in which the department might be improved upon, and ways in which the department really should change. In that latter category is a concern which can best be summed up this way:

To me, Old Saybrook deserves a community policing approach, and to me, that primarily means policing with a light touch rather than a heavy hand. Time and again, however, I’ve encountered evidence of what seems to me to be an unwarranted and inappropriate heavy handedness. Let me give some examples.

The “Old Saybrook Air Freshener Heroes” video presented us with a purported DUI stop of an Hispanic gentleman that immediately morphed into a handcuffing and a completely unfruitful drug search, all supposedly justified by an air freshener hanging from the gentleman’s rear view mirror. The conduct depicted in that video was an embarrassment to our department and to our town, and that’s why I brought it up before the Commission.

The fracas over the Chief’s withholding mail from the Commissioners was occasioned by a citizen’s complaint about a traffic stop, for no discernible reason, of a middle aged man dropping his daughter off at his ex-wife’s home in Old Saybrook, and being commanded to get out of his car for no apparent reason, being patted down for no apparent reason, and with the young teenage daughter also being commanded to get out of the car for no apparent reason. I brought that to the Commission’s attention at the first meeting after I learned of it, and the majority Commissioners declined to look into it.

The next issue I raised related to our department’s reaction to a report of a stolen street name sign, which resulted in three or four officers and our Chief of Police converging on two women and a young man with Down’s Syndrome, mistakenly confronting them as though they were felons instead of summer residents simply enjoying a picnic in their own yard. The majority Commissioners declined to look into it.

And then we come to the recent departures of several of our officers, which prompted this whole “turnover” issue. Reasons for leaving cited by those departing officers evidenced similar aspects of what I would think of as overzealous or heavy-handed policing. This included the Chief requiring patrol officers to arrest people for offenses which the officer might have preferred to let go with some counseling, or to just issue a citation for but not drag down to the police station and incarcerate. Again, this to me smacks of heavy-handedness directed from the top down. And these reasons were echoed in the exit interviews of other officers, which I was prevented from summarizing in our May meeting. But the point is that once again, the majority Commissioners decided not to look into any of these departures or the reasons for them.

In addition, two of those original three departing officers were quoted as saying that one of their reasons for leaving Old Saybrook was that the Chief had ordered them to conduct what they understood to be illegal searches. And again, the majority Commissioners voted down my motion that we look into that issue.

As I hope is evident, I have no animus against our police officers, whether they choose to leave or opt to stay and continue to serve our community as best they can.

As I hope is also evident, while I have no personal animus against the Chief, I do question the appropriateness of what strikes me as an unnecessarily heavy handed approach in dealing with our citizens. But I am not a police professional. I can imagine that there could be considerations pointing in other directions. I humbly acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers.

Which brings me to my next point. It seems that whenever I raise just a question, a majority of you Commissioners try to smack me down and decline to look into what might be a potential problem. You officially reprimanded me for bringing up the “Air Freshener Heroes” video. You officially reprimanded me for speaking with the father of the teenager being returned to her mother’s home. You amended the By-Laws to prevent me from undertaking any “independent investigations.” You have shot down my every effort to look beyond the Chief’s explanation of departmental turnover. And you have repeatedly rejected my efforts to revive the structure and staffing study.

So, it is certainly fair to say that when it comes to a majority of the current Commissioners, I am indeed resistant and persistent. That is because I think we Commissioners owe it to the town of Old Saybrook and to our police department to bring to bear whatever abilities we have so that we can make our police department as best it can be at serving our community’s needs. We don’t do that by placidly accepting whatever the Chief is telling us and ignoring what our eyes and ears are telling us. I firmly believe that as Commissioners we need to inform ourselves as best we can, obtain all the help we can, and share as much as we can with our fellow citizens. Only in that way can we challenge the Chief to do better, and thereby — possibly — help him and the department to do better.

Let me close with this last thought. I do not question the Chief’s devotion and dedication to Old Saybrook, his intelligence, or his hard work. But the Chief is fond of drawing the analogy that he is the CEO, and the Police Commission is the Board of Directors. I agree with that. But it is the responsibility of the Board of Directors to establish the mission, set the goals, give guidance as to the methods for meeting those goals, and monitor progress toward those ends. If we don’t do that, that’s on us. And if we don’t do that, our “shareholders,” the people of Old Saybrook, really should replace us.

Chub Wilcox
Old Saybrook, CT

Wilcox is a member of the Old Saybrook Police Commission

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