Call for police oversight board gets mixed response
WESTPORT — A man arrested for eating a hash brown in his car is now pushing for more civilian oversight of local police.
While the above sentence is accurate, it does not tell the whole story.
Jason Stiber was actually charged with driving while using a cellphone — he told the officer who pulled him over that the phone was, in fact, a hash brown.
“I had to go through two trials and then I was found not guilty,” Stiber said.
He’s now collecting signatures in favor of creating a citizen review board — technically a police commission — and though he has at least one well-placed supporter, it may be an uphill battle.
First Selectman Jim Marpe, for example, does not believe it’s a necessary thing in Westport, noting an “absence of substantive complaints.”
“I’m comfortable that our police department works actively to be sure that any citizen complaints are independently reviewed within the police department,” he said.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas agrees. He said there is a system in place to guarantee oversight and accountability of the 64 police officers under his command.
“This is not a department that has excessive force issues,” Koskinas said, though he readily admits that no department is immune. “Not that we’re not capable. It could happen tomorrow.”
That’s not good enough for Stiber.
He said he felt “victimized” during the traffic stop, that the arresting officer was overworked, that footage from a body camera worn by the officer was not available and that complaints he filed with the department were “swept under the rug.”
“I thought that there would be more on an unbiased complaint resolution mechanism,” Stiber said. “I was shocked to find that there wasn’t.”
Kristan Hamlin, at least, is on Stiber’s side. Hamlin is a member of the Westport Representative Town Meeting, a former federal prosecutor and practicing attorney. She said a civilian-run police commission makes sense.
“It is good civic hygiene to have military and paramilitary organizations accountable to civilian government,” according to Hamlin. “With the exception of only one other town in Fairfield County, every single town in Fairfield County has a police commission. Darien has had one since 1925. They all work well.”
Stiber’s vision for a police commission, as outlined in his petition, is as follows: “The board will be constituted by five, unpaid, elected officials, which will be elected every two years on Election Day in November, when other town boards have their elections. Two of the positions on the board will be for Republican candidates, two will be for Democrats, and the fifth will be a swing seat for whichever fifth candidate gets the most votes.”
Marpe said a police commission, as he understands it, would not have interfered with Stiber’s incident, and that with as many as 30,000 police calls a year in Westport, the job would be tremendous.
“Ironically, most police review boards don’t even deal with things like traffic stops,” he said. “It’s possible that this particular incident would not even risen to the level of review.”
But that’s not necessarily correct, according to Hamlin. She said police commissions have a wide-ranging series of responsibilities.
“The commissions do not supervise every phone call, and they do not take over the role of police,” she said. “They provide oversight only on a couple of narrow topics, such as civilian complaints of police misconduct, and reviewing the quality of a police hire, before it is finalized.”
Both Marpe and Koskinas pointed to accountability measures already in place. The department has relationships with the Anti-Defamation League, and with TEAM Westport (Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism), as well as an internal professional standards division, which looks at every civilian complaint.
“We spend so much time on so many different things,” Koskinas said. “If there isn’t a problem and things are getting done, why are we looking to add another layer?”
Koskinas said the officer who stopped Stiber is not new to traffic stops. “This same officer has stopped RTM members in our town. He has stopped hundreds of drivers. The complaints aren’t pouring in. They aren’t coming in at all.”
Hamlin countered that the “don’t fix what ain’t” argument does not hold water.
“No organization with absolute power — unreviewable by the citizenry — favors giving up a portion of its absolute power,” she said. “Anyone would selfishly favor a system of self-review and self-vindication.”