Concerns raised over Westport’s proposed civilian review board

Photo of Katrina Koerting
Westport Police Headquarters on Jesup Road.

Westport Police Headquarters on Jesup Road.

Cameron Martin / Cameron Martin

WESTPORT — Members of the Representative Town Meeting said they could not support the new proposed civilian review board ordinance as written, with the police chief raising several concerns of his own this week.

The Civilian Review Board would provide police oversight and serve as an independent body to hear complaints made against members of the department. Residents raising the proposal said the town needs a permanent board to oversee the police and hold them accountable, while some opponents said the current proposal is confusing and contradictory.

The RTM Public Protection Committee voted 7-1 on Thursday to not recommend the new ordinance be adopted when it comes before the entire RTM later. The proposal will also go before the body’s ordinance committee before it’s presented to the full RTM for a vote.

Several speakers at the meeting asked that the existing civilian review panel be given more time to get going and figure out what works and doesn’t before presenting an ordinance for a new board.

“It seems like we’re reinventing the wheel we just invented,” said Claudia Shaum, an RTM member on the committee.

The panel was created in 2020 following protests for further police accountability after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who was later convicted for the murder. It was recently approved to add two members, bringing it up to five.

The current members are TEAM Westport Chair Harold Bailey and the second and third selectwomen. The new positions are currently open.

Kristan Hamlin, one of 25 co-petitioners for the civilian review board ordinance, said the current panel doesn’t meet the Connecticut Bar Association’s recommendation that every municipality with a police department have either a civilian review board or commission. She called the panel “window dressing” and said the problem is that it’s temporary and political because selectmen hold two seats on the board.

“This panel is completely ineffectual,” she said.

Bailey agreed there should be a permanent option and Chief Foti Koskinas agreed there should be oversight and accountability for the department, but said this ordinance wasn’t the way to do it.

“I welcome it, I want it, but for me there needs to be a fair balance,” Koskinas said, suggesting codifying the existing panel and turning that into a board instead.

The proposed ordinance was submitted late last year by lead petitioner Tom Prince with several changes to the original version, which the RTM rejected last fall 32-1 with one abstention. One of the big issues in the original was the subpeona powers included in it.

Under the original proposal, the police would have handled the majority of investigations into complaints, while the review board would conduct the interviews and take the sworn testimony of the complainant, the accused police officer and their respective witnesses, according to Prince’s earlier presentation.

That effort was spearheaded by Jason Stiber, who made headlines back in 2018 when he was given a ticket for distracted driving. At the time, he claimed police had confused a hash brown for a cell phone. He was later found not guilty by a judge.

In this new ordinance, board members cannot hold other elected offices in town and board members will be chosen for their relevant qualities and expertise. This ordinance would also eliminate the subpoena power provision.

Hamlin said every resident should have the right to have their complaint heard and this board would be able to do interviews with the complainant and officer while the police chief would make the ultimate decision and have veto power to the board’s recommendation. She said the ordinance won’t interfere with the police’s own investigation, but the investigation needed to be a “fact finding mission.”

“There shouldn’t be weighting in favor of the police officer,” she said, adding the officer needs to be interviewed just like the complainant.

The subpoena power was again the focus of debate Thursday with some arguing the language included a back door to those powers without actually saying the word “subpoena,” but Hamlin agreed to address that section to make it clear the powers wouldn’t be there.

Koskinas said the new ordinance has a lot of the same issues he had with the first one.

“I find this ordinance to be more contradictory as you read through it than the last one,” he said, adding he had questions about the investigative and review powers.

He said the investigation in these complaints should be done by people trained to do that type of work because they know what to look for and are able to determine credibility.

“I will relinquish all investigation from the department as long as there are professional investigators reporting to the panel or the board,” Koskinas said.

Hamlin said the process how it’s outlined in the proposal isn’t confusing because it’s the same approach done in the courts.

“This is the way it works in the criminal world exactly,” she said.