OLD SAYBROOK — Claiming the need to exercise oversight, Democrats on the Old Saybrook Police Commission refused to turn over copies of a complaint against the town’s police department, despite Republican commissioners and Chief of Police Michael Spera insisting that keeping copies of the document violated the right of victims to privacy.
Copies of the complaint were sent to Town Hall addressed to each of the commissioners by name according to commission member Alfred “Chub” Wilcox.
At a meeting of the commission on Monday, Chair Frank Keeney requested that all of the commissioners return their copies of the complaint to Spera.
Commissioners Wilcox and Renee Shippee refused to turn in their copies of the letters to Spera.
In urging Wilcox and Shippee to return their copies of the letters, Keeney cited a by-law that the commission adopted in November of last year, which states that commissioners “shall forward” communications about personnel matters to the chief “for proper processing in accordance with Department General Order 4.6.”
Wilcox countered that this policy did not prevent commissioners from making a copy or taking notes on the communication.
Spera said that the documents that the commissioners received contained not only a complaint, but also a domestic violence report and photos of a domestic violence victim, including statements obtained from juveniles. Spera said that, due to the sensitive nature of the documents, they should be returned to the department immediately.
“This situation that we are in right now is unconscionable,” he said.
Spera said that while the commissioners had received the communication “legally,” he said that domestic violence reports are “one of the most extreme confidential documents that we deal with” and that “victims have the right to privacy.” He also said that the state has regulations around how and where police reports are filed, and that there are rules around how the documents are shared.
In a Sept. 5 email to commission members, Spera warned that it was not the role of the commission to investigate crimes:
“Civilian Police Commissioners should NOT be in possession of Domestic Violence Police Reports, despite how they were obtained. Commissioners have been educated on this fact, have no standing to investigate criminal matters, have a clearly defined course of action to abide by after receiving specific types of communication, and have been directed to turn the documents over to the Office of the Chief of Police. Therefore, retaining these documents is a willful and deliberate act.”
At the meeting on Monday, Spera said he didn’t understand how members of a commission could decide that they are above their own by-laws.
“If we talk about accountability and oversight, if we refuse to not follow our own rules simply because we don’t like them, then that’s just not the way America works,” said Spera.
Republican commissioners joined Spera in urging Shippee and Wilcox to turn in their copies of the letters and documents.
“Let’s be clear — if we could discuss openly the content of this letter, folks in this room and the public on TV would be appalled,” said Commissioner Joseph Maselli. “What we’re not talking about here is the personal, authentic dramatic circumstances that a person went through.”
“I’m just worried there’s another side to that complaint. There’s a victim here … and that information should not be out in the general public,” said Commissioner Carl Von Dassel.
Commissioner Susan Quish said she did not understand why the Democratic commissioners felt they could ignore the by-laws the commission adopted.
“I continue to be disappointed that we are repeatedly having to go back and revisit an item that we all voted on,” she said.
“An ongoing oversight responsibility”
Wilcox contends that the commissioners should be able to keep the letter as a means of engaging in active oversight. He said that the obligation that a complaint be forwarded to Spera did not mean that the commission was no longer responsible for what happened with the complaint.
“There was no discussion to the effect that once the complaint was forwarded to the chief, the commission was then divested of all responsibility and authority respecting that complaint, regardless of what the chief thereafter did or didn’t do with it,” Wilcox said in a letter addressed to Keeney that he read at the meeting.
Wilcox told CT Examiner that the complaint, postmarked July 6, came from a person who felt the department had not properly investigated the situation before he was singled out and arrested. According to Wilcox, the photographs in question were not taken by the police, but were photographs “taken and shared by private citizens.”
In his letter to Keeney, Wilcox expressed concern that Spera had not handled the complaint appropriately, in accordance with the department’s civilian complaint policy. Wilcox said that, at the prior commission meeting, Spera told the commission that he had not investigated the complaint because the plaintiff had not come to the department to file one.
Wilcox said he felt the department should begin an investigation based on the complaint they had already received, rather than insist that the individual come to the police department and file with a specific document.
“I come to the table with the view that the Police Commission isn’t doing its job. I think we have an ongoing oversight responsibility,” Wilcox said at the meeting.
Shippee said she believed that the person who sent the letters had sent them to each individual commissioner for a reason. She also told CT Examiner that she believed that as a member of an oversight body, she had a duty to see the investigation through.
“I just don’t think that this has been seen through to its completion, I’d like to make sure that this gentleman is taken care of,” said Shippee.
Spera said during the meeting that private residents have an expectation that when they call the police department, their information will be held in confidence.
“I am extremely concerned that people in the public will seek this document from those who have possession of it, who are not familiar with the Freedom of Information laws,” said Spera.
Shippee, however, told CT Examiner that she was concerned about how much information the chief shared about the complaint in the police commission meeting.
“This was a document that was never discussed in public, and last night the chief divulged a lot of information that was in there that was never shared publicly,” she said.
Spera told commissioners during the meeting that he had reached out to the town’s insurance agent to put them on notice, and that the town had reached out to an independent attorney.
“The town has engaged independent counsel, and that counsel will be rendering an opinion. And the opinion is going to be that those documents are returned to my office.” said Spera.
Spera did not respond to a request for comment from CT Examiner.