Old Saybrook Police Commissioners Debate Limits of Oversight, Investigation

Old Saybrook Department of Police Services (CT Examiner/McDermott)


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OLD SAYBROOK— Proposed changes regarding how the commission handles complaints and comments from the public prompted a lengthy debate at the Police Commission meeting Monday night, as well as calls for a more in-depth discussion at a later meeting. 

Debates over the commission’s new bylaws have been on going since March, when town attorney Michael Cronin objected to the new rules, arguing that one of the changes was “illegal” and went against a policy adopted by the Police Department and that he feared other changes could open the town to liability. 

In April, the commission approved the changes to three of the four bylaws under discussion. The changes would have made it possible for police commissioners to use discretion to decide whether or not to share correspondence addressed to them with other commissioners or the chief; encouraged commissioners to talk with the public about issues regarding the police department; and prohibit members of the public with a complaint about a specific police department employee from identifying that person by name during public comment. 

After the bylaws were approved, First Selectman Carl Fortuna contacted the town’s insurance company, CERMA, whose lawyer James Tallberg said he believed the commission had “overstepped its bounds” with the bylaw changes. Fortuna then issued a letter saying he expected the commission to reverse the changes of the bylaws. In June, the commission voted to rescind the changes, despite some public opposition to the move.

“I believe it goes without saying that if the [Police Commission] had passed the original set of new bylaws, and there was a claim or lawsuit related to those bylaws, the town would find itself in a situation where the insurance company could easily disclaim,” Fortuna told CT Examiner in an email on Tuesday.

The town has since contracted attorney John Berchem to work with the commissioners on developing bylaws that will not put the town at legal risk. 

In the meeting on Monday, Chief Michael Spera said he believed the commission had not been transparent in its process of making changes to the bylaws. He said much of the editing had gone on in private discussions without debate in front of the public. 

“I just don’t feel like that process has happened in open session in the most transparent of manners,” said Spera. “There is no doubt that you have spent a lot of time individually working with counsel hired by the First Selectman, and working with the First Selectman, … but I have not yet witnessed — and I have been at all your meetings — a complete collaboration and discussion about these bylaws.” 

He also said he felt that the opinions of Cronin and Tallberg should be taken into account equally as much as Berchem’s opinion.

Commissioner Jessica Calle expressed agreement that the commission had not openly discussed the changes to the bylaws. She said the commission was trying to invite more collaboration. 

“When we first introduced these, we did it the wrong way, and we know we did it the wrong way. We should have collaborated from the get-go and we understand that,” said Calle. “So we’re trying now to do the best we can to collaborate, based off of lawyer recommendations, how they write it — just as everyone wanted. And we’re trying really, really hard.”

Spera said the proposed bylaw change regarding public comment should include a clause to let the public know that positive as well as negative comments can be made about the department.

“A perspective of a police officer, a dispatcher, a support staff member and or their families is why is the police commission removing the positive word about someone’s employment?” said Spera. “The end user, the employee sees that as, why is the top box scratching out saying something positive? Why are we only focusing on the negative?”

Commissioner Joe Maselli agreed. 

“We took the one positive thing and we removed it,” he said. 

But Wilcox said that people could bring any type of comment to the Police Commission, and that it wasn’t the commission’s job to tell people what type of comment they could or could not bring. 

Renee Shippee, vice chair of the commission, said the previous public comment bylaw needed to be changed because it didn’t allow people to make any negative comments. 

“You can’t come here with all sunshine and rainbows,” said Shippee. “If people aren’t happy, we need to know that, too.” 

Commissioner Jill Notar-Francesco said that she felt the new bylaws were well written. She pointed out that Berchem Moses had done this work for multiple municipalities. 

“Personally, I like this language and I feel that whatever work’s been done on these bylaws – it’s come out very clean,” she said. 

Commissioner Carl Von Dassel said he believed all correspondence should go through the chair of the police commission rather than to individual commissioners — a feeling he said he’s had since the beginning. He said he felt this would provide the public with a consistent point of contact, given that the membership of the police commission change each election cycle. 

Wilcox said the commission wanted to change the bylaw on citizens’ complaints so that the chief was not potentially handling complaints against himself. The new proposed bylaw would forward complaints about the chief to the first selectman, as a way of “insulating” the police commission, which would have to make decisions about discipline. 

Spera said that the Board of Selectmen was not in the “chain of command” listed in his contract.

“My [Police Officers Standards and Training Council] certification is the same as any other … certification held by any other police officer in the state of Connecticut,” said Spera. “So deviating from that standard is improper unless you negotiate a procedure with me.” 

Wilcox said that the change to the bylaw allowing commissioners to follow up on complaints made by citizens came from an experience last year when the commission reprimanded him for calling a citizen to follow up on a complaint. 

He said he believed that it made sense that a commissioner should be able to stay informed on what was going on. 

“I don’t think it is a very sound idea to say that police commissioners shouldn’t have conversations with people who are happy or unhappy. They should have conversations with everybody,” said Wilcox, adding that if someone told him about a problem they had with an officer, it made sense for him and other commissioners to get a sense of what that complaint was about. 

But Spera argued against such an independent role for commissioners.

“A police commissioner should never, ever, ever, individually go out and speak to someone who’s making a complaint against one of our sworn officers,” said Spera. “It is not your job. Your job is to adjudicate disciplinary decisions that I make either in the grievance process or brought to you upon the recommendation of discipline.” 

Wilcox said that the bylaw did send any complaints against police department employees to the chief of police for investigation — with the exception of complaints against the chief of police. 

Spera said that a commissioner investigating a complaint about a police department employee before bringing the matter to the chief could taint any potential investigation and disciplinary procedure from the start — what he referred to as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” 

“A misstep at the beginning of an employee investigation can negate a result that’s best for the community, which is why I am so passionate on everyone staying in their own lane,” said Spera. “Because if it was a serious grievance about a violation we have, and a commissioner makes a misstep at the very beginning, and due process rights are violated —  no matter what I can prove, discipline or termination may not happen in the end because of that first misstep.” 

Maselli said he wanted to hear from First Selectman Carl Fortuna to make sure that the bylaws were acceptable to the town’s insurance carrier. 

“We lost thousands of dollars and many months of work,” said Maselli. “So I’d like something to close the loop on the insurance company’s concerns.” 

Fortuna told CT Examiner in an email that it was not up to him to support or not support the new bylaws as they were drafted with Berchem’s help.

“It is up to the commission to act within the bounds of the law,” said Fortuna.

The commission ultimately decided to dedicate a future meeting just to going over the bylaws.

Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.