OLD SAYBROOK — A 2021 exit interview by a former officer of the Old Saybrook Police Department claimed Chief Michael Spera has fueled a toxic work culture, pitted employees against one another, subjected them to constant monitoring, while creating an “anti-union” workplace.
The town and the department have fought for two years against the release of the interview, first at the Freedom of Information Commission and then in state superior court, claiming that the release of the interview would constitute an “invasion of privacy” for Spera.
Last week, a New Britain Superior Court judge ordered the town to release the documents.
Captain Jeffrey DePerry, an employee of the department, conducted the interview on March 26, 2021 with Justin Hanna, a police officer with the department for three years and the union president.
Days later, in an April 5, 2021 memo to Spera, DePerry claimed that Hanna had displayed “immature behavior” on various occasions as a police officer, that his exit interview “displayed his lack of maturity.” DePerry said that the interview as “unlike any I had previously assisted with.”
In the interview, Hanna claimed that the police department had “an abhorrent, toxic culture fueled by the chief.”
“I have felt that the workplace in Old Saybrook is hostile, anti-union and drives employees from a beautiful town with amazing residents,” he wrote.
Hanna also charged that Spera did not allow coworkers to eat together, work on reports in the same room or meet up outside the police station.
“[Spera] created a hostile, toxic work environment in which he promoted isolation, fear and (attempted) to create doubt in co-workers,” Hanna wrote. “The Chief told officers other co-workers were spreading rumors about them to create distrust in our peers, favored employees who did not call/talk to their union, and even overtly disciplined members of the union who filed grievances.”
Hanna said that Spera sent “demeaning” emails to employees and spoke to them in a “demeaning” ways over the public radio waves. He also criticized Spera’s administrative work, claiming that employees often found errors in their paychecks, that the schedule was rarely updated, prone to errors, and that shifts were often understaffed, which meant that employees would have to either come in early or stay after a shift.
Hanna later told CT Examiner that the union had filed grievances and had them withdrawn from the labor board in order to extract a better contract — an allegation he alluded to in the exit interview.
“The only reason we were able to secure a decent contract was to wipe our documented wrong doings that the chief had committed. We were promised things would change, they did not,” Hanna claimed.
A “negative mindset”
DePerry alleged in his memo that after reading Hanna’s responses, he “immediately noted … that [Hanna’s] intent was to discredit Chief Spera.”
According to DePerry, Hanna said he was constantly afraid of getting into trouble at work and that he felt he was being monitored. Hanna listed a variety of devices — video cameras at police headquarters, department cell phones, live feed cameras, GPS and body cameras. Hanna claimed that Spera had “sold these ideas as officer safety enhancements but they were simply a way to spy on and discipline employees.”
In his April 5 memo, DePerry questioned Hanna’s version of events, and described him as “irrational” and “paranoid.”
“Justin’s statements appear to be irrational and disorganized, he continued speaking rapidly, and his statements appeared paranoid and disconnected from actual facts. It was also clear that some of his statements were clearly rehearsed. I stopped him several times during his rant to advise that some of the statements he was making were simply not true. Justin would smile, pause and reply, ‘well, this is just the way I feel,’ and continue speaking about the next topic,” DePerry wrote.
In a statement to CT Examiner, Hanna explained that his goal in writing the exit interview was to share his own reasons for leaving as well as to point out ways the department could improve so that more officers would stay. He said that while he was “emotional” while writing the exit interview, that didn’t take away from the significance of what he’d written.
“While I admit that I could have articulated some of my thoughts more professionally, it did not change the ultimate message of the exit interview,” Hanna said.
DePerry attributed Hanna’s “negative mindset” in part to completing his field training with Shannon Warren, a former sergeant with the department who spoke to CT Examiner in 2020. DePerry characterized Warren as a “former negative employee.”
DePerry further blamed the supervision of William Bergentino, who sent a letter complaining to the Police Commission in 2021 about the “toxic and hostile work environment.” DePerry characterized Bergentino also as a “former negative employee.”
DePerry also noted that Hanna had been the subject of several disciplinary actions, for lateness, for failing to report for an assigned duty and for forgetting his firearm at another police department.
Hanna claimed in is interview that when he was hired, Spera told him that he failed the psychological test “so badly that it couldn’t be scored,” but that he would “take a chance on me.”
“Going forward, I felt in debt to the chief and as though I ‘owed’ him,” Hanna wrote.
Hanna also alleged that Spera told him that “if he could help my [Field Training Officer] Shannon Warren ‘move on,’ then he would gladly do so.”
Hanna said he witnessed Spera refer to Bergantino and Warren as “malcontents.”
“To help people and not to hurt them”
Hanna noted in his exit interview that he was the subject of three internal investigations during his time at the department, and said the first was opened after he filed a grievance over a two-hour callback into the police department to finish an arrest report.
DePerry claimed in his April 5 memo that the actual work had taken 10 minutes, and that Spera agreed to pay for 45 minutes of work.
Hanna said the other two internal investigations were opened after he was late to a road job he was never notified about, and after he reported15 minutes late to a daytime shift.
“I was fearful that this was going to get me fired, I felt as though I could no longer work my dream job in this beautiful town because I always felt under the chief’s thumb,” Hana alleged.
According to DePerry, Hanna seemed “personally conflicted” about the job and said he had taken the job “to help people and not hurt them.”
According to DePerry, Hanna told him that he believed officers could use a summons — allowing someone who is arrested to leave the police station with a court date — rather than placing them in jail. He said he felt officers should have more discretion.
Hanna was complimentary of officers in the department, including DePerry, describing him as “knowledgeable” and “a great resource.” He also alleged that DePerry “was often FORCED to perpetuate and take part in creating the toxic work environment by Michael Spera.”
“There are many young officers who are outstanding at their job who have left, will be leaving soon or still at the department now,” Hanna note in his exit interview.. “I can only hope that the Police Commission will take this serious and actually inquire into why every time Michael Spera turns around, half his department has left.”
DePerry did not respond to requests for comment from CT Examiner.
First Selectman Carl Fortuna and Police Commission Chair Chub Wilcox declined to comment on the exit interview. Spera did not respond to a request for comment.