By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Another proposal is being advanced to establish a permanent Civilian Police Review Board to handle complaints against the Police Department, three months after the Representative Town Meeting rejected an ordinance to create a similar watchdog.

The RTM is slated to hear a first reading of a new, and revised, ordinance to set up a review board at its session set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 4, via Zoom. The online link and meeting agenda can be found by clicking here.

Since it will be the first reading of the proposed ordinance — posted on the RTM agenda by a petition signed by more than 20 Westport electors — there will be no discussion. The proposal next will face hearings by committees of the legislative body before returning for a vote by the full body.

Meanwhile, First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker intends to appoint two additional members to an already-existing Civilian Review Panel instead, which was set up in 2020 by then-First Selectman Jim Marpe. 

Appointed panel “a toothless PR ploy”

That appointed panel, unlike one established by an ordinance, can be disbanded at any time by a first selectman. Critics of that panel also have questioned whether appointees might have conflicts of interest and have called for a board with broader authority.

“It’s a toothless PR ploy that [former First Selectman] Marpe used because he thought it would shut people up,” commented Tom Prince, the lead petitioner for the current version of a Civilian Police Review Board ordinance. 

The appointed panel was established by Marpe as a five-member board, but only three people were ever appointed — Tooker, in her former role as a selectwoman, fellow Selectwoman Melissa Kane and Harold Bailey, chairman of TEAM Westport.

Lack of police oversight like “an authoritarian banana republic”

“It’s pretty appalling to me and to many other people” that the town’s police force operates with limited outside oversight, Prince said. “They’re standing at home plate with a baseball bat and calling their own balls and strikes,” he said. “It’s like an authoritarian banana republic.”

But Tooker, as the recently elected first selectwoman, has a different take on the issue. She wants to keep the appointed panel format, instead of the proposed Civilian Police Review Board. 

“I am very committed to the work and the role of the Civilian Review Panel. Ensuring it is operational was one of my first priorities,” Tooker said Monday,

“At the RTM Meeting on Jan. 4, I will be announcing the intention to appoint two more members to the CRP.” Since the November election, the panel has two new members in addition to Bailey — Selectwomen Andrea Moore and Candice Savin — Tooker said.

Latest proposal drops subpoena powers, timing proviso for investigations

The new version of an ordinance to establish a Civilian Police Review Board, submitted by Prince and 24 other petitioners, is similar to the proposal rejected by the RTM in October in a nearly unanimous vote — with two major differences. 

The new proposal would not give subpoena power to the civilian board, and it stresses that police officials’ investigations into complaints against their personnel may begin right away without first convening the board. 

Police Chief Foti Koskinas was critical of both provisions in the last go-round with the RTM, and Prince said he believes that changing those two provisions will make the review board plan acceptable to the town.

“We deserve a Police Department that is completely transparent,” Prince said. “The [Westport] Police Department is like a concrete wall.”

The earlier ordinance, discussed last fall by the RTM’s Ordinance and Public Protection committees before being rejected by the full RTM, proved particularly controversial because of the subpoena powers in the proposal. It also was petitioned onto the RTM agenda, led by Westport resident Jason Stiber, who was charged with distracted driving 2018 when police contended he was on his cell phone. Stiber, who said he was eating a hash brown while driving and was not on the phone, was initially found guilty of the charge, but later won his case on appeal.

The current version is similar to October’s rejected proposal, but eliminates civilian subpoena powers and states that police officials can begin investigations into complaints immediately instead of including board members from the start, addressing two of Koskinas’s major criticisms.

The text of the new plan also includes language incorporating Connecticut House Bill 6004, “An Act Concerning Police Accountability,” which was signed into law in 2021.

Ordinance needed despite Koskinas’ popularity, says proponent

“I know Chief Koskinas has a lot of fans on the RTM and has a lot of fans around town. If you’re friendly with Foti you’re voting against the police board,” Prince said. 

But, he added, “It doesn’t really matter how much everyone loves Chief Koskinas. The police should not be policing themselves. People have confused this proposal with a vote for Foti, and that’s not true.”

The chief was not available for comment, but Deputy Chief Sam Arciola said that the police will discuss the proposal with RTM members and answer questions as it moves through the body’s regular review procedures.“We’re not in the business of going back and forth with individuals who are petitioning to have a civilian review board,” he said. 

When the new proposal is the subject of hearings by RTM committees and the full RTM, “We will address any concerns with the content of the petition … We’ll be in attendance and will answer accordingly,” Arciola said.