Westport RTM committee votes not to recommend police civilian review board

Photo of Erin Kayata
The Westport Police Department.

The Westport Police Department.

Chris Marquette / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — The Public Protection Committee of the Representative Town Meeting voted against a proposal to create a civilian review board for the Westport Police Department on Wednesday.

Only Noah Hammond and Kristan Hamlin voted in favor of the proposal, which would have created an RTM-appointed board of five members who would help with hiring and investigations into complaints against the department. Andrew Colabella, Louis Mall, Candace Banks, Seth Braunstein and Chairman Jimmy Izzo voted against recommending the policy while Richard Jaffe and Richard Lownstein abstained.

The proposal has been in the works for roughly two years. Dissenting members cited a number of concerns, including the purpose of the board and the ability of its members to adequately investigate complaints.

“I’m in favor of a CRB,” Jaffe said. “I’m also in favor of taking the time to consider what powers a CRB should have.”

Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas also spoke out against the plans for the board, saying he has doubts civilians who don’t understand the police processes can investigate complaints as well as members of the department. He also expressed concern about how much power the panel would have, among other issues.

Most communities in Fairfield County have some sort of civilian panel or board to oversee police, but Koskinas said few have as much power as this proposed CRB, calling the measure “Draconian.”

“This is by no means to avoid accountability,” he added. “(But) there’s not a single police commission that has the power to do (what this proposal outlines). I cannot find a single organization where the review board does the initial investigation and then turns it over to police.”

However, under the proposal, the police would handle the majority of investigations into complaints, while the CRB would “conduct the interviews and take the sworn testimony of the complainant and his or her identified and designated witnesses, and the accused police officer and the identified and designated police or respondent witnesses.”

According to Capt. Dave Farrell, who is in charge of the complaints process, a person can call, email, or verbally file a complaint against the Westport Police Department at Town Hall or police headquarters. Complaints can also be filed by a third party or anonymously. The complainant is then interviewed and police review any body camera footage, 911 calls, and radio recording of the incident. The office is also subjected to a recorded interview and the town’s Civilian Review Panel can ask additional questions.

Farrell said he’s often able to respond to complaints within minutes and begin the investigation process quickly.

“I wonder how CRB could be that responsive,” he said.

Hamlin, who was serving as a proxy for Jason Stiber who brought forth the petition for the ordinance, said having a third party look into complaints would prevent conflicts of interest that could come from officers investigating their colleagues.

“It’s human nature to have some sort of implicit bias in favor of people who are friends and colleagues no matter how good of an investigator you are,” she said. “Even if it can be done, there's the appearance of impropriety. One of the things we’re trying to do is assure more people in the community have confidence in the process.”

Hamlin also said Westport is a “straggler” in Fairfield County when it comes to having a civilian board dedicated to police accountability and suggested a lack of one could open the town up to more litigation under the police accountability bill passed last year.

However, Koskinas balked at the idea that he would allow an officer to investigate a close colleague and pointed to recorded interviews as a measure of accountability in investigations.

The petition for the ordinance to create such a review board was brought forth by Westport resident Stiber who made headlines back in April 2018 when he was hit with a ticket for distracted driving after a Westport officer pulled him over, claiming Stiber was on his phone. Stiber said he was eating a hash brown, a claim which was later hashed out in court in his favor.

First Selectman Jim Marpe created a panel last year following protests for further police accountability after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of an officer in Minneapolis. The panel made up of three members appointed by the First Selectman provides feedback on hiring and police complaints, but Stiber said the panel is limited and has too many conflicts of interest.

A Civilian Review Board, on the other hand, would allow for an independent body to be involved, according to Stephen Schackelford who also stood in as Stiber’s proxy at Wednesday night’s meeting.

“It gives folks, whether it’s citizens ... or police officers who are unhappy with the particular complaint, a safety valve to get another hearing,” Schackelford said. “We’ve heard from other folks who come on who said they have issue with the police department. I think something like this, if done right, is helpful to the chief and helpful to other people.”

Though the committee opted not to recommend the proposal, the proposal is expected to be voted on by the full RTM come October.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect an RTM committee voted to not recommend the proposal. It has also been updated to clarify who would investigate claims against the police, and that the proposal has been in the works for about two years.