By Thane Grauel
WESTPORT — A two-year effort to establish a permanent Civilian Police Review Board ended in a lopsided defeat early Wednesday.
The Representative Town Meeting voted down the proposed ordinance 1-32, with one abstention.
That decision came after more than four and one-half hours of discussion.
The proposal to create the board was brought before the RTM by a petition signed by more than 20 local voters. The petitioners’ effort was primarily motivated by their concerns about limitations in the authority of a Civilian Review Panel set up by First Selectman Jim Marpe to review complaints about police.
Petitioners also faulted potential conflicts of interest for members of Marpe’s panel, which because it was appointed and not established by ordinance, could be dissolved by a future first selectman.
The lead petitioner, Westport resident Jason Stiber, began the process of proposing a civilian police review board after he was cited by a Westport police officer in 2018 for distracted driving while using his phone. He contended that he was eating a hash brown from McDonald’s and not using his phone, and ultimately won his case on appeal.
Complaints against police not addressed, some contend
The RTM acted early Wednesday after lengthy debate as well as hearing impassioned testimony from people who say they were treated poorly by Westport police.
“I’m not a resident of Westport, but I must travel through your gorgeous town to get to work every day,” said Johnnetta Cephas, who is Black. “I had a personal experience with the Westport Police Department, just driving to work one morning.”
She said she was pulled over, but did not know the reason.
“What was the reason why you stopped me?” she said she asked the officer. “And because I kept asking that, which I know is my right, he told me either give me your license or you’re going to jail. So right away I’m threatened about a traffic stop.”
Cephas said the officer accused her of driving straight ahead from a turning lane, which she said was not the case.
“I actually filed a complaint with your Police Department, I never heard anything back,” she said with a halting voice, tears on her cheeks.
She said she doesn’t know if the officer was reprimanded, or if any action at all was taken.
“I have no idea because no one even had a consideration to even tell me is this was even investigated or not,” she said. “I go to work, I don’t cause trouble, I have family, I’ve been in my job for 11 years.”
“I just hope you guys are open, and listen to what everyone has to say,” she told Deputy RTM Moderator Jeff Wieser, who chaired the Zoom session.
Harold Bailey, the chairman of the town’s appointed Civilian Review Panel, who is Black, also spoke at the RTM’s Zoom session. Bailey also is the chairman of TEAM, a town board that addresses issues of multiculturalism.
“The issue here is, how do people get any kind of recourse if they feel they are treated incorrectly? And also, how do the police get protected from the perception that they’ve done something wrong when they haven’t?” he said.
Bailey said he also had troubling experiences with police, including one about 10 years ago when he and his wife were walking to the beach.
“The police go by us, pull around, come up, on the sidewalk, in front of Longshore, and ask us what we were doing,” Bailey said. “When I objected as to why I was being stopped, I had somebody put his hand on his gun, and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”
Bailey said he called the police chief at that time, and was told there had been robberies in the neighborhood and don’t you want your neighborhood protected?
“That was it,” Bailey said. “There was no recourse.”
“I agreed to sit in, and be a part of this council,” he said, referring to the appointed panel established by Marpe last year. But, he added, that was “strictly because I wanted to make sure that nobody has to go through that, or any of these other issues, again.”
Bailey said he knows the current police chief, Foti Koskinas, and is confident that wouldn’t happen now.
“But the problem is, what happens where there is no Foti?” he said.
RTM members question need, powers of review board
Arguments that damaged the measure with the RTM’s Public Protection Committee, which last month did not endorse the proposed ordinance, were raised again.
What is the problem the proposal is trying to solve? member Richard Jaffe, District 1, asked fellow members of the legislative body.
“I think you have to be living under a rock to not realize what the need is for an independent civilian review board,” replied member Christine Meiers Schatz, District 2.
Concerns again were raised about subpoena powers proposed for the new board.
Kristan Hamlin, District 4, a proponent of the measure, suggested two amendments to clarify the wording, but that didn’t help. After more than an hour’s debate, both were defeated.
Harris Falk, District 2, made a point that has been the crux of the argument about police accountability in communities nationwide.
“You can’t have police police the police,” he said.
But, he said, this measure “just seems to be too combative.”
There was praise from RTM members for the Police Department and Chief Koskinas.
Chief doesn’t buy argument the proposal was not anti-police
But there appeared little love lost between Hamlin and Koskinas.
“We can shake our head all we want,” Koskinas said.
“We’ve been through this for two years. Let’s call it what it is. If we’re trying to send a message, let’s send a message to the Police Department,” the chief said.
“If we’re trying to correct a problem, let’s identify the problem that we’re correcting. But to try to adjust words and to try to push this through, when we know what the motives are …,” he added.
Proponents of the ordinance “say it’s not anti-police, I’m not buying it and I hope you’re not either,” Koskinas told RTM members.
Hamlin called a point of order, saying the chief’s comments were ad hominem (directed personally, not in regard to their position on an issue) and inappropriate.
Wieser said it was not a point of order and moved on.
Hamlin: Some lack ‘guts’ to do something police won’t like
Hamlin recalled a conversation with a colleague a year ago.
“The very people who say that they really care about racism and they really care about justice equity will come up with little excuses about why they can’t back it,” she said. “Because they won’t have the guts, it’s hard to do something that the police don’t want.”
“I’m finding it frustrating because there’s a lot of people who just parachuted in at the end. More than half the people on the RTM, many of them on this call, never showed up for one of the nine committee meetings” on the issue, Hamlin said.