Sunday, November 28, 2021

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Citizen Complaint Sparks Heated Debate About Police Records in Old Saybrook

Ahead of a contentious election that will determine the composition of the Old Saybrook Police Commission, Old Saybrook Chief of Police Michael Spera released a statement lambasting the two Democratic Police Commission members for what he said is a failure to surrender sensitive records, which were sent to the commissioners by a private citizen. The chief and commissioners in question have disputed everything from the content of the communications to the meaning of the term “forward,” potentially setting up a lawsuit in which the town would need to represent both parties.

The Democratic Police Commissioners, both up for reelection, said the timing of Spera’s statement is an effort to affect the election.

In early July, a citizen sent a packet to each Police Commission member alleging a complaint wasn’t properly investigated by the department. Neither Spera nor any of the police commissioners would identify the citizen or the citizen’s relationship to the records.

According to Spera, each member of the commission received “a letter of concern about an arrest, a supplemental Old Saybrook Police Department domestic violence report that included the name of a domestic violence victim, the names of juveniles, and juvenile statements as well as photographs of a domestic violence victim.”

Spera said he instructed each member of the commission to review then return the reports to the police station for safe keeping. Regarding communications addressed to individual police commissioners, the Police Commission bylaws state members should forward the communications to the chief of police if regarding a personnel matter or present the communications to the commission clerk for non-personnel communications; the bylaws do not use the terms “return” or “surrender” when it comes to handling communications adddressed to commission members.

The five Republican members of the Police Commission followed Spera’s direction to turn the packets addressed to them over to the department; Democratic Police Commission members Renee Shippee and Alfred “Chub” Wilcox did not.

Wilcox, directly contradicting Spera’s characterization of the material sent by the citizen, emphatically stated both in writing and in conversation with the Harbor News that there are no “police photos in any of the documents being discussed, report of a police interview with the alleged victim, report of a police interview with a child of the alleged victim, or photo of or even the name of a child of the alleged victim.”

On Oct. 12, Spera issued a statement on the department’s website. In part, the statement says “After months of unnecessary debate, independent legal counsel has determined that Police Commissioners Alfred ‘Chub’ Wilcox and Renee Shippee’s refusal to turnover privileged domestic violence related documents is both a violation of Police Commission bylaws and Connecticut law.”

Later in the statement, Spera quotes an independent legal counsel who was asked by the town to weigh in on the issue.

“To the extent that members of the Board of Police Commission or any other civilian employee or police officer, is maintaining documents in a private fashion, is illegal under the Freedom of Information Act and could subject the Town of Old Saybrook to fines and penalties for violating the act,” attorney Michael Rose is quoted as writing in Spera’s statement.

Rose’s opinion later stated, “The act also discusses domestic violence records, exempting them from disclosure. Records that are exempt from disclosure are only viewable upon an order of the Freedom of Information Commission or by order of the court. Those records must be kept by your department and safeguarded from public view.”

A Murky Issue

Per the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the department is required to keep records in a secure location, especially if they contain protected or privileged information. Complicating the issue, the act does not apply to a private citizen’s handling of the information or that individual’s right to share that information.

In his statement, Spera wrote, “The lawful storage of reports…builds trust between those who require services and the police. The proper storage of confidential reports does not preclude the commission as a body to review documents for a lawful and legitimate reason. The public must be assured that their private matters are kept private and stored in accordance with the law.”

Thomas Hennick, the public educator on Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission, told the Harbor News that the issue in Old Saybrook is murky, with no clear answer. Hennick stressed that he was not speaking on behalf of the commission as the commission members would be the party responsible to make a ruling.

Hennick said that in his opinion, based on the way the case was described to him, that it is “shaky ground.”

“They would probably be well advised to give the documents back to the department,” Hennick said, as the commission members could be exposing the town to legal liability outside of a FOIA issue if, in fact official police records, normally exempt from distribution, were sent to the commissioner.

Wilcox and Shippee Respond

Shippee told the Harbor News that she wanted to keep the documents because “I wanted to make sure this is properly investigated.”

Shippee also backed Wilcox’s claim that there are no police interviews, juvenile names, or photos in the documents. Shippee said she wasn’t sure if Spera was confused about what information was actually in or not in the documents of which she and Wilcox are in possession.

Shippee said in her four years on the commission this is only the second time a complaint has been sent to the commission members. The last time was in 2020.

“There wasn’t a big deal made at that time about the commission members having the correspondence,” Shippee said, and added she also believes she is not in violation of the commission bylaws.

Wilcox spoke with the Harbor News about his refusal to hand over the documents. Wilcox acknowledged that he has been asked more than once to hand over the documents, but he said that since the other commission members have handed over their copies, the department should have everything it needs to complete the investigation.

Wilcox said he kept a copy of the records because the writer of the letter alleges the complaint isn’t being investigated properly.

“I think the commission has an ongoing oversight responsibility,” said Wilcox.

In a statement he emailed to the Harbor News, Wilcox wrote in part “I can’t accomplish anything individually, only a majority of the commissioners can really accomplish anything. But I can’t persuade a majority to do anything without the benefit of information, and I think that’s what this dispute is really about. The chief apparently wants to be the only person with all the information he or she needs, depriving the rest of us of our ability to do our jobs effectively.”

Later in the letter, Wilcox wrote that when he asked for an update about the case at a commission meeting, Spera replied that the complainant hadn’t appeared at the department to fill out a form so the allegation wasn’t being reported.

“[T]hat runs directly counter to the chief’s own general Orders for the department, which state that complaints received in the form of a letter are to be promptly acknowledged and investigated. Clearly, there is good reason for the commission to be alert to its ongoing oversight responsibility here.”

In speaking with the Harbor News, Wilcox said that he would release a second statement detailing why he believes he has not violated any legal thresholds, and maintained that in his view he has not violated the commission bylaws.

Wilcox’s full statement can be read on the Old Saybrook Democratic Town Committee website at oldsaybrookdemocrats.com.

Wilcox has been a frequent critic of Spera and the Old Saybrook Police Department over what he feels is a lack of transparency and follow up on incidents concerning the department over the years. Wilcox and Shippee are both running for re-election in this year’s municipal election. Wilcox told the Harbor News he believes the timing of Spera’s statement was meant to hurt his and Shippee’s reelection chances.

Shippee also stated that was her opinion as well.

Spera firmly denied that allegation.

“[That] would be incorrect. I have made continuous appeals in writing and at public meetings for commissioners Shippee and Wilcox to return the privileged documents to the department for safe keeping,” he said. “There would have been no need to discuss this matter in October if commissioners Shippee and Wilcox obeyed the law and followed their own commission’s bylaws in August.”

Town Response

First Selectman Carl Fortuna said that the town had contacted an outside legal counsel to get an independent opinion on the issue. He said that opinion backed Spera’s position.

Fortuna said he would not focus on the hypothetical question of what happens if the case ends up in court and if the town would be forced to pay both the attorney fees for the department and the commissioners.

“I’m very hopeful it won’t come to that,” said Fortuna.


Eric O’Connell covers news for Clinton for Zip06. Email Eric at e.oconnell@shorepublishing.com.

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