Leaders of Westport’s public safety departments voiced support for a proposal to establish a permanent Civilian Review Board last week, from left: Police Chief Foti Koskinas, Deputy Fire Chief Nick Marsan and Marc Hartog, deputy director of the Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Service.
Stephen Shackelford, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 8, presented the latest version of an ordinance to create a Civilian Review Board to RTM committees last week.

By John Schwing

WESTPORT — What a difference two years make.

When a citizen petition to create a Civilian Review Board to oversee complaints against town emergency-services personnel first faced a vote by the full Representative Town Meeting — in October 2021 — the proposed ordinance was shot down in flames by a lopsided 32-1 margin.

In 2022, a revised proposal to create a review board, once again filed with the legislative body by a petition signed by more than 20 electors, also failed.

Discussion of those plans consumed hours of RTM committee hearings, with debate often turning acrimonious and divisive, focused on how complaints against public safety officers should be investigated, who should handle those complaints and what authority a civilian board should be granted.

Civilian Review Panel a blueprint for new board

In the meantime, a Civilian Review Panel — initially established in 2020 by then-First Selectman Jim Marpe and fully activated by his successor, Jennifer Tooker — has been given responsibility to handle complaints filed by civilians against police officers, firefighters or emergency medical service personnel. That panel, however, is not encoded by town ordinance, serves at the first selectperson’s pleasure and lacks some powers proposed for the earlier initiatives.

But the reception for the third proposal in three years to establish a “Civilian Public Safety Departments Review Board” — by ordinance — so far has been largely positive, a marked difference from the heated debate over previous versions.

Last week, the proposal was reviewed by both the RTM’s Ordinance and Public Protection committees, and while revisions to the resolution’s language will require it to go before Tuesday’s meeting for another “first reading” — no vote will be taken — the general discussion was broadly supportive.

Stephen Shackelford, District 8, one of the measure’s sponsors, led the presentation at both meetings. 

The new board has been suggested, he said, as “the culmination of promises that a lot of us made over the last several years when the RTM considered several attempts at a Civilian Review Board … we spent a ton of time on that effort, and we ultimately decided not to pass that ordinance.”

But, Shackelford added, the RTM sponsors and others were invested in seeing how the Civilian Review Panel performed and what could be learned from that record before moving forward with a permanent board established by ordinance.

The initial blueprint for the new board was based closely on the structure and powers assigned to the existing panel, he said, but several changes were made based on feedback.

Changes proposed for membership

Chief among the changes would be the board’s appointed membership.

One change would end the automatic appointment of the second and third selectpersons to seats on the five-person panel and instead grant the first selectperson authority to appoint two members of the general electorate. The change was made to avoid a potential conflict if a public safety employee, aggrieved by a board decision, appeals the ruling to the Board of Selectmen — where two selectpersons would already have weighed in on the matter as members of the review board.

Another change, regarding the seat designated for a TEAM Westport member, calls for a nominee to be made by members of the multicultural advocacy group, who then would be appointed with the first selectperson’s agreement.

The board’s other two members would be appointed by the RTM, as is now the case with the Civilian Review Panel.

No subpoena power

The proposed board, like the existing panel, would lack the power to issue subpoenas — a contentious issue proposed for the board in 2021, which provoked strong opposition from police officials.

Proponents of giving the Civilian Review Board subpoena power in 2021 had argued that without it, the body would be rendered a paper tiger that was not truly independent.

Louis Mall, District 2, during the Public Protection Committee’s hearing last Wednesday, insisted that a proviso blocking the board from having subpoena power be written into the proposed ordinance.

Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Flug noted that, under the state Police Accountability Act, civilian review boards “may” be empowered to issue subpoenas. If that authority is not desired for Westport’s board, she said, the RTM should specifically add that to the ordinance. 

Shackelford agreed to make that revision.

Public safety officials endorse proposal

Police Chief Foti Koskinas, who joined both committee meetings last week, voiced support for the latest version of the proposal.

Noting that discussion of a review board had consumed “60 to 70 hours” over the last two years, Koskinas told the Ordinance Committee, he feels the complaint process as handled by the Civilian Review Panel over the last two years has “worked quite well.”

Both Deputy Fire Chief Nick Marsan and Marc Hartog, deputy director of the Westport Volunteer Emergency Medical Service — whose departments’ personnel, including volunteers, also would fall under the board’s purview — echoed the positive assessment by Koskinas.

The chief reiterated his support the next night to the Public Protection Committee, observing the complaint procedures had not been “thought up overnight” and “we are not shying away from this …

“Transparency is at the forefront … Ultimately, the goal is that if there is a complaint, not only is it investigated fairly, but that people can see what the process is and understand how we got from Point A to Point B,” he added.

“We are in full support,” Koskinas said of the latest revisions to the proposal outlined by Shackelford. 

Handling complaints in this way, the chief said, will help dispel the idea that when complaints arise, “police take care of the police.”

Panel members rate process highly

Selectwomen Candice Savin and Andrea Moore, who have served on the review panel the last two years — but would no longer be members if the ordinance is adopted — both gave their experience high marks.

“It’s been a very positive experience,” Savin said, noting that the few complaints received during the two-year span is an “encouraging” sign of how the public interacts with the town’s emergency services personnel. The three public safety agencies have been transparent and cooperative in handling any matter that came before the review panel, she added.

Moore agreed. “Everybody involved in the process has been very responsive,” she said, noting the departments’ handling of complaints brought to the panel has been “detailed and very honest.”

The few complaints filed against public safety personnel, Moore said, “speaks volumes” about the kind of people hired and how they are supervised.

And Teresa Fabi, one of two RTM appointees to the panel, also said the review process has worked well.

Fabi noted that while a civilian review board needs to walk “a fine line” to avoid undermining public confidence in the police, “transparency is key” to dealing with complaints against officers.

Fabi said she is “happy” to support the revised version of the proposed ordinance.

Jimmy Izzo, chairman of the Public Protection Committee, praised the “hard work” by subcommittee members who “helped guide us … to get this right.” It has ensured the goal “to make sure we have a fair process that works,” he said.

Not every complaint gets reviewed

An issue that RTM members at both meetings sought to clarify concerned what complaints would come before the board for hearings.

The process, as described by Shackelford, would not require the board to review every complaint filed against an emergency service employee or volunteer.

Each department will review all “documented complaints” in compliance with their policies on professional standards, and following an internal investigation, forward such complaints to the board.

The board would be able to examine the records of any investigation and, if it desires, call for further investigation and make recommendations.

The board also may receive complaints directly — likely though a portal on its planned website — that will be forwarded to the relevant department for initial investigation. The board would not investigate a complaint unless it is documented and first reviewed by the public safety agency in question.

The decision on what penalties are imposed, if any, would reside with the chief of the relevant department.

John Schwing, the Westport Journal consulting editor, has held senior editorial and writing posts at southwestern Connecticut media outlets for four decades. Learn more about us here.