OLD SAYBROOK — A New Britain Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that the Town of Old Saybrook must release an exit interview with former Officer Justin Hanna, that the Town and Police Chief Michael Spera unsuccessfully argued would constitute an “invasion of personal privacy” for Spera if released.
In March 2021, Hanna left the Old Saybrook Police Department after three years as an officer, sitting for an exit interview with Captain Jeffrey DePerry and completing an 11-page written interview before he left the department. According to the court’s memorandum of decision, the interview “contains highly critical comments and opinions regarding Chief Spera which are directly related to Chief Spera’s operation and supervision of the OSPD.”
The memorandum said that in the interview, Hanna discussed “several negative experiences” he allegedly had with Spera while working at the department.
That July, Hanna requested a copy of the interview from the Old Saybrook Police Department, which the Old Saybrook Board of Selectmen refused to release. A year later, the Freedom of Information Commission ordered the town to release the interview, ruling that the interview contained Hanna’s “personal impressions of Chief Spera, related to the chief’s official duties and responsibilities as Chief of the Old Saybrook Police Department,” and, therefore, “a matter of public concern.
According to the commission’s decision, town attorney Patrick McHale argued during a hearing that the exit interview should not be released because the interview contained “negative opinions” and “defamatory statements” that were designed to “discredit” Spera.
“We believe that the exit interview attacks the police chief’s reputation and that of the Old Saybrook Police Department, and therefore the police chief has a legitimate expectation of privacy and properly believes that the disclosure would be highly offensive to him,” McHale told the commission in a meeting on July 13, 2021.
In August 2022, the town appealed the decision, again arguing that the release of the exit interview would amount to an invasion into Spera’s privacy. They objected to a request by the Freedom of Information Commission’s decision to delete a clause from their formal decision in which the Commission said that “some of the information contained in the in camera records may be harmful to the chief’s reputation and that of the respondent police department itself.”
In a February 28, 2023 brief, the town notes that Spera had told the Commission that releasing the exit interview would have “a negative impact on his current or future professional endeavors and create a lack of trust in his leadership position as well as undermine the Old Saybrook Police Department.”
But the judge presiding over the appeal agreed with the commission’s original order to release the exit interview.
The judge noted that there was an “overarching policy underlying the [Freedom of Information Act] … favoring the disclosure of public records.” He also pointed to other cases in which documents were released because of the public interest in the “integrity” of police departments. He agreed with the Freedom of Information Commission’s finding that having access to Hanna’s interview was “necessary” for the public to understand the department’s “investigative process, decision making and overall handling of an important matter involving a fellow police officer.”
He also disagreed with the idea that the interview would damage Spera’s personal reputation.
“Here, Officer Hanna’s comments in his exit interview relate exclusively to how Chief Spera performed his official duties as chief of police in Old Saybrook and other matters directly affecting the operation and personnel of the OSPD. None of Officer Hanna’s comments in his exit interview relate to any personal or private matters related to Chief Spera, or any matters that are unrelated to the operation of the OSPD,” the judge concluded.
He also noted that, at the time that Hanna was leaving, the Board of Selectman had expressed concern about the turnover in the Old Saybrook Police Department, and that Hanna’s responses “directly relate to that issue.”
Hanna, who CT Examiner reached by phone Thursday, did not offer comment, but he said that he had just emailed First Selectman Carl Fortuna to request a copy of his exit interview.
Chairman of the Police Commission Alfred Wilcox declined to comment. Spera did not respond to requests for comment before this article was published.
Fortuna told CT Examiner in an email that the town had appealed the FOI Commission’s decision at Spera’s request.
“I was clear to the chief that, should we lose at the Superior Court level, the town had no intention of taking a further appeal,” he said.
Fortuna said the town planned to release the exit interview early next week.
This story has been updated to include comments by Fortuna