OLD SAYBROOK — The Democratic candidates for the Old Saybrook Police Commission — incumbents Alfred “Chub” Wilcox and Renee Shippee, as well as newcomers Jessica Calle, Jill Notar-Francesco, and Carol Manning — sat separately for interviews with CT Examiner to answer questions about their thoughts on the role of oversight, the accessibility of the commission to the public, and the handling of complaints from the public and police staff.
No Republican candidate for the commission was willing to be interviewed for this story.
Biographies in brief
Chub Wilcox is a retired lawyer who spent 40 years practicing complex litigation, including serving as counsel for the defense in the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meltdown in 1979.
“What I’ve done is litigation. And in litigation, you are trying to assemble facts, put them together, see how they make sense … and apply them to a conclusion. And that’s what I think the commissioners need to do. They need to assemble information, analyze it, see if it supports the goals they have for the department,” he said.
Renee Shippee has owned an auto repair shop in Old Saybrook for 24 years. She said she joined the Old Saybrook Police Commission as a way of giving back to the community.
“I think I like to ask a lot of questions. I think I’m very thorough. And I guess I’m just, I don’t even know if determined is the right word, but, you know, I like just to get to the bottom of things,” she said.
Jill Notar-Francesco served for eight years on the Southington Board of Education and was the board’s liaison for the Capital Region Education Council. She said this experience has given her an understanding of how boards, commissions and municipal governments function.
“I think I also have the ability, because of this, to understand what works — the importance of constituents, the importance of staff and making sure that staff is happy and morale is good. But also … the tough job of exercising oversight and being fiscally responsible.” she said.
Carol Manning was a teacher for 34 years in a school district in Massachusetts. During that time, she said, she served as the science and math coordinator at a junior-senior high school, and was responsible for writing and managing budgets.
“I’ve worked with people. I understand the budget. I’ve worked with youth. I understand them, I think as much as you can understand the young person these days,” she said.
She then spent two years as a selectman in Old Saybrook.
“I learned a lot about politics from that and I learned a lot about the various departments and how they run. And, so, I think I’m a really good candidate with everything that I bring to the table.”
Jessica Calle, a single mom raising two boys, ages nine and four, said both her uncle and her grandfather served in the Old Saybrook Police Department.
“If I went up to someone or if they knew that Bill Gifford was my grandfather, they would tell me stories of him when he was a police officer and it made me feel special… but it also gave me an idea of how policing should work,” she said. “Fast forward to me as a single mom with two boys now … getting all these updates about the Old Saybrook Police Commission and watching the videos, that just … triggered something in me that just said, okay, enough is enough. I’m going to just get involved.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
How do you understand the meaning of “oversight” in the context of the Police Commission? And what do you see as the commission’s role in overseeing the Police Department?
WILCOX: First, it needs to inform itself and then it needs to exercise its collective judgement. You can’t exercise judgment without information on which to base it. And the biggest problem I have with commission currently is that it deliberately closes its eyes and ears to information. The most glaring example of that is, we had public discussion about turnover in the department. The commission at the urging of the first selectman asked the chief to write a report on turnover. And of course, you don’t need to be a scholar of human nature to know the chief isn’t going to write a report that says it’s all his fault. So instead, as you would expect, he writes a report that says, Oh, we don’t have much of a problem here, it’s endemic to the profession and throughout the country. Well, that’s fine, that’s his view, but the commission shouldn’t stop and just hear from him. We should have gone further.
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: The oversight for the Police Commission is setting annual goals with the police chief, evaluating the police chief on an annual basis and listening to constituents when they bring issues to the table and issues to the forefront. It’s really important to not dismiss those. You don’t necessarily need to provide full weight to it, but you need to explore it. And especially when you start to hear a consistency of message from constituents or staff. You need to be aware of those things and bring them up and resolve them.
CALLE: I do feel the police department needs oversight. And I do believe the police commission should be involved in that. I also believe [in] establishing a role within the police department — whether it’s located in the department or in the town hall of a department or an officer or a sole person — initiating the internal affairs approach to the complaint system and to the department in general. I think that would be a huge, huge benefit for the town of Old Saybrook. And the police commission would also be involved in that department as well as the chief of police, as well as the first selectman. All the information would circulate through those three areas.
MANNING: Connecticut state law says that the police commission should have oversight. I think part of oversight would be really knowing what’s going on. I know that the police commission has the job of hiring and firing, but I think there’s some benefit, if there are two open positions, to bringing in more than two people to interview. I think we need to look at the staffing. We need to look at the budget. I think that it’s only fair to the department, which has some really good police men and women, and to the taxpayer, to have independent people come in to look at the whole thing. So I take all that as oversight.
SHIPPEE: Oversight with the budget, that’s definitely huge. We need to take care of our police officers and the police department. And, at the same time, we have to be conscious of the taxpayers. If citizens have concerns, I personally think it’s our responsibility to make sure that that stuff is followed through. If we receive a complaint, I think we need to address it, and we need to know where it goes, all the way to the end, to make sure that that person is satisfied.
Do you think that police commissioners should have their contact information listed on the town website?
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: People should be able to contact us. I do believe that there should at least be some way that the residents of the town can reach out to commission members if they feel they need to. I think that’s part of the overall job of oversight.
WILCOX: What I support actually is having the town website, including an email address for each commissioner that each commissioner could access from his or her home computer. I think it is beyond doubt that many people are reluctant to make complaints to the department for fear of reprisal, and I think they should have an alternate and convenient means of communicating.
CALLE: A hundred percent. We’re elected officials and the community. Will be giving their trust and faith in us. And if we’re willing to accept that trust and faith and hold that responsibility, then we should be willing to be contacted, acknowledged, known for it as well.
MANNING: I think that you should be able to contact your commissioners. And I think sometimes you have to use intuition, as well as experience and intelligence to say, “Oh boy, I don’t know where I want to go with this one, but I don’t think I want to go far,” versus, “Oh, this is great and I really think it needs to be brought to the commission as a whole.” Do I want them in my personal email? No, but do I want them to have a way to get in touch with me, even if it’s a contact through the town? Yeah. I think it should be available.
SHIPPEE: I wish that we could have our own town email address. I don’t agree with the chief of police being the key contact for the police commission. I don’t understand why we can’t all be reached out to through email.
Do you feel that the Old Saybrook Police Department should pursue a staffing and structure study done by an outside agency?
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: In the community, an ongoing, constant complaint from people is that they think we spend too much money on policing in Old Saybrook. So if there were an independent source who would come in, provide another set of eyes, I think that it would really quell the discussion in town. And it would actually give residents some peace of mind about where we are, where we stand with our, with our force and the money that we’re spending.
WILCOX: I certainly do. I think it’s appropriate that the commission is not composed of police professionals. The whole point of a commission is civilian oversight. So almost by definition, the commissioners are amateurs and throughout my legal career, being a lawyer doesn’t equip you to have the expertise that you need to do your job representing a client. So you turn to the client and you turn to third-party outside experts to educate you about how you can advance your client’s causes, and it’s no different in my mind here. We are amateurs and we should engage independent professional help.
CALLE: A hundred percent. It would be transparency. We’d figure out what strengths we really have, and we can build on those. But we can also figure out our limitations, and we can work with the chief and the police commission and the selectmen. The town can work together to build those limitations up and to really make it a community process. Because that’s what it should be. It should be a community process.
MANNING: I don’t think it hurts any department, organization, what have you to have other experts outside the town, come in and, and do a look-see. It helps you to reorient your thinking. It helps to give you a clear vision, and you don’t just bring in some idiot off the street. You bring in people with police background who do this. I don’t think it’s best for the town, for the taxpayers or for the chief to not look at things.
SHIPPEE: Definitely. I think we’d find out, basically, what services we provide that are niceties and what are essential. so that we know we’re spending our money where we need to spend it. There’s a lot of niceties that we provide in this town — maybe we don’t necessarily have to provide all of that stuff. And the money could be spread in other areas that we need it.
Do you believe that commissioners should be able to investigate issues that are of individual concern, independent of the rest of the commission?
WILCOX: I think it is their duty to do that. Yes.
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: I’ve always been a fan of doing my own investigations and getting to the bottom of things. As long as the commissioner, you know, doesn’t go off to a place that is illegal, I think every commissioner should have the ability to have the discussions and to seek out information as they see fit. And it should eventually come back to the commission if there is any real legs to it.
CALLE: It should be the entire commission. The entire commission should be aware of everything going on. I don’t think a specific commissioner should deviate from the course.
MANNING: First off, I think the commission needs to ask more questions, and if they asked more questions and made accountability important, then I don’t think any individual commissioner needs to go off. I don’t need to go off and investigate something if I feel that the group I’m part of has asked the questions and gotten the answers. But if you don’t get any answers, if you’re not allowed to ask questions, then that’s what happens.
SHIPPEE: I don’t know that I would say independently investigate, but I don’t think it would be out of the ordinary for a citizen to reach out to one of us individually. And then we could bring it forward to the commission as a whole. Where I do think it would be nice to get a little more information is when the police commission decides they don’t want to do anything, which is very frustrating.
What do you believe should be the policy for handling civilian complaints?
WILCOX: I think the commission should be made aware of every civilian complaint, whether it comes in to the commission or to the department. Then I think the commission should decide how that complaint should be handled. Should it be delegated to the department, to the chief, for him to appoint somebody to investigate and make recommendations or report? Should it be investigated by the commission itself? Should it be investigated by some professionals that the commission turns to — for example, the state police, the FBI, the state’s attorney, or an independent counsel — all depending on what’s the nature of the complaint.
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: I can certainly tell you that, if civilian complaints are out there, that they should not solely be addressed and handled by the chief. I do think that each and every commissioner should be seeing those, and having some input into it or having some discussion about it. Especially, as I said, if the complaints seem to have the same kind of tone to them over and over again, same content.
CALLE: I believe that they should open up an office — and it could be a sole person — an Office of Police Standards. And their role would be to handle the complaints. Now, yes, they would still fall under the authority of the chief, but as well as the first selectman and the police commission. So it would be an all-community task. [The office] should accept complaints no matter what it is, no matter how big, how little, how justified, how realistic, how unrealistic it is, anything, and they should accept it [in] any way. [People] can come in and fill out the form. They can call, they can email, they can send a note. It doesn’t matter how they do the complaint. We’ll take it, we’ll look at it and then we’ll follow these separate procedures to get it done.
MANNING: I think if a complaint comes in, that it shouldn’t be just the police chief who handles it, or even just the police chief and the chair, who traditionally has been Republican. I think there could be some policy changes where maybe, in the complaint department, the chairperson, and the ranking minority person and the chief look at it so that it’s not kept in secret. I do think that it shouldn’t just be the chief because it’s a complaint against his department.
SHIPPEE: I think it would be nice if we did know about all civilian complaints. Unfortunately unless a correspondence is sent to us we’re not always made aware of that. I personally think any complaint that comes through, the police commission should be made aware of. Maybe we’re not going to be the people that should investigate it, but I think we do need to be made aware of what’s going on.
Do you believe the commission should address the complaints that were made last year by former officers about a toxic work environment?
WILCOX: I think we [the commission] should invite each one in to be interviewed in executive session and see what’s behind that.
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: My view on it is that if these police officers really had some issues, they should have filed a formal complaint. To have actually made the statements within the press seems to me to not really be a way to get the complaint out there. And if there was any meat to it, they should have just done it through proper channels. So no, I don’t think that the commission should further explore that unless it comes through the formal complaint process.
CALLE: Again, if we do something like the office of police standards they can also address those problems.
Because those would also be formal complaints that can be made and yes, we should address all of them. Everybody should be able to feel like their voice is being heard and that they matter.
MANNING: I think they should be able to talk with the officers when the officers say, “Hey, I’m here. And I’d like to talk with the commissioners.” Commissioners, I do believe, need to know why so many officers have left. Once that’s looked at then maybe some changes can be made in process or something. I think there needs to be some policy changes.
SHIPPEE: At a minimum I think that we should have brought them in.They were all willing to come in and talk to us. I think we should have at least brought them in and heard them out. It would be a learning experience for all of us.
What do you believe should be the Police Department’s policy on the release of body camera footage?
WILCOX: I think it should be released in accordance with the terms of the Connecticut Freedom of Information statute.
CALLE: The public should not have access to it as readily available. I don’t think that’s appropriate. And I do feel like that’s a violation of rights, especially for what might be on that footage. However, I do believe that when requested to see the footage — especially from a complaint, especially if it’s from the selectman or the police commission or another outside authoritative force, it should be given up without any hesitation. Because of transparency. Whether or not they do something negative or positive, the more that they just let all of it out in the open, the more we’ll be able to trust them and understand.
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: It should be released. There’s just no question in my mind. This is a big feature of transparency and that, I think, is one of the roles of a commissioner — is trying to support oversight transparency.
MANNING: We paid for body cams. They have a purpose. Should they be released to the public ? In some cases, yes. I have to defer to people on the commission who know, and to the chief. Should they be hidden? No. Should they always be released to the public? I think it’s an individual case-by-case.
SHIPPEE: The town taxpayers paid for the body cameras. And the body cameras work both ways. They could help the town, and they could hurt the town. There could be an instance when somebody said something happened, [that] a police officer did something to them, and it didn’t happen that way. And that protects the town. But you also have to protect the people that are being arrested too, because you don’t always know how things are handled.
Where do you see the value in having a commission made up of civilians?
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: We have a responsibility to bring some common sense to the commission or to the Board wherever we’re serving. Yes, we do rely heavily on advice, information coming from administration. There’s no question about that. But I know for myself, I am not generally a board member that just accepts things at face value.
WILCOX: There are lots of ways in which the police commission being civilian, it’s the conscience of the community. It’s certainly got the power of the purse. So that’s why we need to listen to people, talk to people, engage with people, and not just insist that the only person we’re going to listen to is the chief.
CALLE: I think it’s important to have an oversight committee made up of residents of the town for the PD because the police, their duty is to serve the people and to serve the town and the dept that they are a part of and if we’re the ones that they are serving and protecting and helping and being part of our community, than we should be the ones who provide the oversight. It’s only fair that we get to give our opinions and share our concerns and give our applause as well.
SHIPPEE: I think everybody brings something to the table. Everybody comes from a different background, has different experiences. I don’t think that you necessarily have to have been a member of law enforcement. We have, you know, be people on the board of finance that haven’t necessarily all been accountants Or CFOs. I think everybody brings something different. Different perspectives.
What are some aspects of policing in Old Saybrook that you would like to change?
CALLE: The thing I would like to work on is turnover. I would love to have cops here in town that we get to know. Now every time I see a police officer, probably 98 percent of the time I’m like, who is that person? If a police officer, whether it’s an officer, a Sergeant or the Chief himself, if they do something wrong or not by the book, they should also be held accountable and they should also want to be held accountable.
MANNING: We’ve lost a lot of young officers as well as a lot of our experienced officers and why? I don’t think the taxpayers know. I’m not sure the commissioners know. I’m kind of passionate about the fact that we don’t know why the officers are leaving and it costs the taxpayers a lot of money.
WILCOX: It seems to me that Old Saybrook should have policing with a light touch and not a heavy hand. And yet here, I think there’s reason to believe that there’s a top-down directed heavy-handed policy, and that is something that I think is perfectly within the purview of the commission to examine and if necessary to fix.
SHIPPEE: We’re a small town. Some of the policing is just, it seems a little overzealous at times. Not all the time, but there have been instances where it seems like a little much.
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: Some of it has been a little heavy-handed. Some of it was people being stopped, what seems to be for no reason. It’s things like that. And not only when you hear it from people in town and residents, but when you begin to hear it from other sources as well, it really leads you to believe that some of this stuff really does need to be looked at.
What do you see as some of the positive aspects of the Police Department?
CALLE: I think our police department is absolutely invaluable. When you actually come across one of the police officers, generally I have always found it to be a good experience.
WILCOX: Everybody’s in favor of the SROs. Everybody is in favor of the fact that the police are also EMTs. I think most everyone is in favor of the DARE program in the schools. I think the chief has strong qualities — he’s organized, he’s smart, he’s hardworking, he’s dedicated. There are lots of good things going for it.
MANNING: They do great on 911 calls. I know that personally, and they do great on community service — Give the Cops the Bird, diaper things, Saybrook Cares. You know, they do a lot of that. [The chief] is fantastic in emergency management, disaster control. He deserves to be headed of the state emergency management thing. He’s great with FEMA. I mean, he does so much well.
NOTAR-FRANCESCO: I think that the department does their emergency management very well. I think that, overall, Old Saybrook is a very safe community.
SHIPPEE: I think we’re really good with community policing. I know our school resource officers — that’s a really good program. I think we are well-protected. We have all the equipment that we need. I think community policing we’re really good at, and we do protect the town. Shifts are always covered. We have a lot of good police officers.