Westporters push for stronger civilian review board for police

An exterior of Westport Town Hall in Westport, Conn., on Friday Apr. 17, 2020. The building has been closed to the public since min-March due to the coronavirus.

An exterior of Westport Town Hall in Westport, Conn., on Friday Apr. 17, 2020. The building has been closed to the public since min-March due to the coronavirus.

Christian Abraham / Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — Residents are pushing for a civilian police review board ordinance after growing concerns with the recently established Civilian Review Panel.

“The issue of police accountability has become an urgent national discussion,” Jason Stiber, the ordinance’s lead petitioner, said at a Representative Town Meeting this week. Those who follow detailed studies on the issue know that police brutality is directly linked to the problem with police unions working against police accountability; sweeping problems of repeat offenders under the rug can have devastating consequences.”

Discussions of a civilian review panel first popped up back in the spring of 2019, when Stiber was given a distracted driving ticket by Westport police who apparently mistook a hash brown for a cellphone. Stiber was later found not guilty.

Following protests against police brutality seen across the nation and in town in 2020, the first selectman started the panel to help hire new employees and to review and provide feedback to civilian complaints.

Currently, the panel consists of TEAM Westport Chair Harold Bailey and selectwomen Jennifer Tooker and Melissa Kane, who were all appointed by the first selectman.

But Stiber voiced concern with the limitations and possible conflicts in the panel. He said the 2020 Police Accountability Act gave the RTM the right to pass ordinances creating a civilian review board. He added the act’s change to the standard of qualified immunity made it urgent and necessary that Westport change the complaint and investigation process.

“With the change in the qualified immunity standard, there will now be a greatly increased potential of taxpayer liability for police misconduct,” Stiber said. “This potential for increased liability demands that we must now reform the complaint and investigation process, in order to meet our obligations to taxpayers.”

He said more importantly, however, the town should make the reasonable reforms because it was the right thing to do.

As part of his proposal, a newly established review board would investigate complaints, participate in hiring decisions and receive and make recommendations for service awards for Westport police officers. The new board would be comprised of five elected voting members each serving four-year terms.

Stiber said the ordinance allows the police chief to ultimately make the disciplinary decision, so police are involved and their views are embraced in the proposal.

“The ordinance is not anti-police, in any way, but it is pro-accountability, pro-transparency, and pro-checks and balances,” he said. “Many of us believe that the majority of police are good, conscientious people, but all humans are flawed.”

Several residents voiced early support for the proposal.

“We need a police review board that is composed of civilian members elected by Westporters, not appointed by Westport politicians,” Cecilia Stiber, a Westport resident, said. “We must solidify Westporters’ right to civilian review of police conduct, like all other towns in Connecticut is entitled, by codifying an independently elected CRB into ordinance.”

But RTM members did not comment on the petition, choosing to follow the common practice of waiting for the second reading of petitions after they have gone through the proper committees.

“It’s more difficult for the RTM members who haven’t been exposed to the full text to even have a great appreciation for what the commenters are trying to contribute to the topic,” said Seth Braunstein, a RTM member. “It’s of much greater impact to the people who will vote on this to have the benefit of the comments after the ordinance has been fully digested and considered at the committee level.”

The RTM will further discuss the petition at its meeting on Feb. 2.

dj.simmons@hearstmediact.com