Westport rejects police review board plan spawned from hash brown incident

Photo of Amanda Cuda
An exterior of Westport Town Hall in Westport, Conn., on Friday Apr. 17, 2020.

An exterior of Westport Town Hall in Westport, Conn., on Friday Apr. 17, 2020.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — After a discussion lasting roughly four hours, the town’s Representative Town Meeting resoundingly defeated an ordinance that would create a civilian review board to help investigate complaints against police officers, among other tasks.

The ordinance has been in the works for more than two years and was defeated 32-1, with one abstention. Most RTM members said they are in favor of having greater oversight on the town’s police department, but had too many issues with the ordinance as written.

“I am in favor of a civilian review board and against the current proposal,” said Richard Jaffe, an RTM member representing District 1. He said his concerns largely centered on the language of the ordinance. “I can not figure exactly what need we are satisfying,” he said, adding that the ordinance “reads like a bunch of so-called best practices, which may or may not be what’s best for our community.”

Under the 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.

The lead petitioner on the proposed ordinance was Jason Stiber, who made headlines back in April 2018 when he was given 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 resolved in court in his favor.

Stiber said the review board would ultimately leave decisions about discipline in the hands of police. Its main role would be to offer an impartial board that would “review complaints submitted by fellow residents.” He noted that, in his research, he found “most civilian complainants have never been interviewed by police department.”

The town does have a civilian review panel, which was created last year following protests for further police accountability after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of an officer in Minneapolis. Panel members are picked by the first selectman. Stiber had criticized the panel, saying its powers are limited and there are potential conflicts.

The decision to vote down the ordinance came after more than four hours of debate, discussion and public comment, including stories from multiple members of the public who said they had encountered problems with the Westport police. That included Bridgeport resident Johnetta Cephas, who told a story about a confrontation with police and a fruitless complaint process.

Cephas, who is Black, said she has to drive through Westport to go to work. One day, she was pulled over by a police officer.

“Since I was not sure why I was being pulled over, when the officer approached my car, I ask, ‘What was the reason you stopped me?’ ” Cephas said. “Because I kept asking him — which I know is my right — he told me ‘Either give me your license or you’re going to jail.”

She said she was ultimately told she was seen going straight in a turn lane, which Cephas said wasn’t true.

“I explained that I was just trying to get to work,” she said. “And his response to me was ‘Yeah, I’m sure.’ As if me being a Black person (means) I’m unemployed.”

Cephas said she filed a complaint against the officer and never heard what became of it. “I never heard what happened,” she said. “If he was reprimanded, I have no idea.”

She said she wasn’t even sure the complaint was investigated.

Even those who didn’t support the ordinance as written appeared shocked by the stories of Cephas and others who claimed to have had negative interactions with police.

“I fully support the concept of this ordinance,” said Ellen Lautenberg, who represents District 7 and ultimately voted against the ordinance. “It may go back to the drawing board. It may not. But it’s really important for us to acknowledge some of the stories we’ve heard tonight.”

While others seemed to agree, there were concerns that the ordinance as written might give the civilian review board too much power. Though most of the RTM members who spoke praised the police department and Chief Foti Koskinas, Koskinas expressed concerns that the board could be harmful to police.

He said he shared RTM members’ concerns about “bad apples” in the department but added that “we have to realize police officers are people and will encounter mistakes.”

Koskinas, though, said he was in favor of working with the town to create a review board that was more mutually acceptable.

The only member who voted in favor of the ordinance was Kristan Hamlin, who represents District 4. She expressed frustration about her colleagues’ concerns, but not surprise. She said she had predicted this scenario a year ago in a conversation with fellow RTM member Stephen Shackelford, who represents District 8.

“I said ‘You watch — the people who say they really care about racism and really care about justice equity will come up with little excuses about why they can’t do it, because they don’t have the guts. Because it’s hard to make police do something they don’t like,’ ” Hamlin said.

Shackelford later said he recalled the conversation but said he disagreed with Hamlin.

“I’m willing to work on a revised ordinance,” he said. “I think the issues people have raised about this are good faith issues and I think we’re close.”