OLD SAYBROOK – Against the advice of the town attorney, the Old Saybrook Police Commission on Monday night approved new policies meant to encourage communication between commissioners and the public.
In a 5-2 party-line vote, the commission approved new rules for managing correspondence with the public, and for talking with the public about their concerns regarding the Old Saybrook Police Department.
The commission voted 6-1 to approve an additional rule that would prohibit speakers at public commission meetings from criticizing specific employees of the police department in a way that can identify that person.
The commission again postponed a vote on rules that would give the commission more options for handling the complaints it receives about the police department — Chair Chub Wilcox maintains that the town attorney, Michael Cronin, is wrong in his opinion that the rule change was illegal.
Commission passes bylaw changes despite legal opinion
While delaying a vote on significant changes to how complaints are handled, the commission did approve three smaller changes to its bylaws, despite concerns from Republican members about a lack of clarity in Cronin’s legal opinion regarding those changes.
The commission voted 5-2 to approve rules for dealing with correspondence addressed to the commission or commissioners. The rules tell commissioners to use their discretion to decide if correspondence sent to them should be shared with other members of the commission, or with the Chief of Police if it suggests a threat to public safety or police.
Cronin wrote in his opinion that he did not think the change was a good idea, saying any bylaw that doesn’t require immediately notifying the department of a complaint about an officer could open the town to “legal liability” because of inaction on the complaint.
Wilcox said Cronin misunderstood the proposal because he thought it was dealing with complaints against the department, which Wilcox said is governed as a separate issue from correspondence with commissioners. Wilcox also noted that Cronin didn’t say the proposal was illegal – like he did with the rules about complaints – but rather said he didn’t think it was a good idea.
Commissioner Joseph Maselli said he would feel more comfortable voting for the change if there was something in writing from Cronin stating that the rules were okay since they did not deal with complaints.
“I don’t want to vote against the town attorney,” Maselli said. “I don’t want to put any of us in that position.”
The commission also voted 5-2 to pass a bylaw that states commissioners can’t serve in a “quasi-judicial” hearing, like one for disciplining an officer, if they’ve demonstrated bias against the officer or prejudgement of the issue.
The bylaw also encourages commissioners to talk with citizens, current and former department employees, and the chief about issues under their jurisdiction. Cronin wrote in his opinion that it is important for commissioners to remain free from even the appearance of bias, and said that if a commissioner becomes personally involved in an incident or investigation of an incident, they should be disqualified from serving in the hearing.
Wilcox said Cronin was being “extremely conservative” since the standard set by the Connecticut Supreme Court for commissioners is to avoid actual bias or prejudgement, not the stricter standard of appearance of bias that judges are held to.
“Mr. Cronin may be correct as a matter of wisdom and policy that, in his view, there should be an even more conservative requirement than the courts say,” Wilcox said. “And it may be that on a case-by-case basis, an individual member of the commission might get too involved and therefore have to recuse.”
Wilcox said the bylaw is intended to let commissioners talk to people in the community and hear what they have to say.
“I was reprimanded because I talked with somebody who had a complaint,” Wilcox said. “Now I thought that was silly. I think a commissioner should talk with somebody who has a complaint, and decide whether it’s something that should be brought before the commission or not. And that’s what this bylaw change is trying to fix.”
Maselli said he was concerned about moving forward with the rule contrary to the guidance from Cronin, saying it’s the attorney’s job to protect the commissioners from liability. Police Chief Michael Spera urged Wilcox to consider whether commissioners could be liable if an issue became a violation of due process or civil suit.
“No one took this job as a volunteer – and thank you for doing so – to maybe have their personal assets fixed in a lawsuit. To protect people, I would get that clarified.”
Wilcox says legal opinion on complaints “completely wrong”
Cronin wrote in a legal opinion that a proposal to give the commission more options for handling complaints it receives about the police department was illegal and “not good policy,” since it conflicted with the department’s policy to refer all complaints immediately to the chief of police.
Currently, the commission’s bylaws require it to turn over all complaints to the department. The proposed rules would allow the commission to deal with complaints by forwarding them to the police department, contracting an independent investigator or forwarding them to state or federal authorities.
Cronin wrote that state law charges the Police Officers Standards and Training Council with developing a written policy on how to process complaints the public makes against police – a policy that Cronin said the Old Saybrook Police Department adopted.
Wilcox disagreed with the opinion and said he had a conversation with Cronin before the commission’s March 29 meeting, which gave him the impression that Cronin was going to revise his legal opinion. Cronin later sent Wilcox a letter stating that he was standing by the opinion, Wilcox said.
Wilcox said the law Cronin cites was passed because police departments were creating roadblocks to discourage people from submitting complaints about police misconduct, and was meant to create minimum standards for how departments across the state deal with records.
“Nothing in that statute said anything about what police commissions could or couldn’t do when a citizen submitted a complaint to the police commission,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox said the state statute governing police commissions gives the commissions the authority to discipline officers, and to adopt regulations to exercise its disciplinary authority. The proposed bylaw fits “very comfortably” within that authority, he said.
“I believe Mr. Cronin’s opinion is so completely wrong – taking a statute intended to eliminate roadblocks, and perverting it into a statute directing new roadblocks – that it must be rectified,” Wilcox said. “I will ask our selectmen to spend the money to do that.”
On Wilcox’s suggestion, the commission tabled that proposal to allow him to ask for a revised legal opinion.