This is a printer-friendly version of an article from

10/21/2020 12:00 AM

Old Saybrook Police Face Criticism for Interrogating Young Man with Down Syndrome

An Oct. 15 march for accountability from the Old Saybrook Police Department started with speeches at the Old Saybrook Green, then proceeded to the Old Saybrook Police Department, where marchers called for transparency, an apology, and change after the alleged mistreatment of a man with Down syndrome. Here, Mark Hand speaks outside the Old Saybrook Police Department.Find more photos from the protest at Photo by Kelley Fryer/Harbor News

A Facebook post involving police interrogation of a Maine family at its Old Saybrook beach cottage has gone viral, with responses to the post from people across the country as well as one from Australia. The post has elicited concerns about handling of situations involving those with developmental disabilities by Old Saybrook police, as well as allegations that the incident is an inordinate response to a minor incident illustrative of how the town’s officers often interact with the public.

The incident spurred a group calling itself Old Saybrook Citizens’ Police Review to organize a march calling attention to what it said is a history of over-policing by the Old Saybrook Police Department (OSPD). The march on Oct. 15 attracted about 50 people, according to Mark Hand, one of its organizers, and marched peacefully from the Old Saybrook Town Green to the Police Department and back.

The Account

At around 12:30 p.m. on Oct. 10, Rebecca Roy and her mother, Colleen, and brother, CJ, were about to have lunch when a police cruiser pulled up outside their summer cottage and an officer emerged, according to Roy’s account, which she posted on Facebook later that day.

“[T]he officer told us that a male suspect had been seen stealing a street sign [and was] driving a vehicle that matched the description of my gray Honda CR-V,” Roy wrote. “It became apparent that my brother was a suspect for no other reason than that my car matched a blurry photo a witness had taken, and that we had reported he was wearing a striped shirt like the alleged perpetrator.”

Rebecca and Colleen Roy explained to the officer that CJ Roy has Down syndrome, does not have a license, and “is not capable of moving deftly enough to steal a street sign, nor does he have any motive to do so,” Rebecca Roy wrote. Rebecca and Colleen Roy called CJ Roy out of the house to speak to the officer and, as they did so, three additional police cruisers pulled up in front of the cottage.

A second officer immediately began to question CJ Roy, according to the account.

“There was no civility in his tone when dealing with us, and the clear indication from his attitude was that we were guilty,” said Roy. “He asked CJ where he had been earlier that day, to which CJ replied, ‘The liquor store,’ and when further prompted, ‘The cheese store.’ Then, without any recourse or reason to do so, [the officer] said to my mentally handicapped brother, ‘Buddy, tell us what you did with the sign.’

“Another officer, who I now understand to be the Old Saybrook Chief of Police [Michael A. Spera] looked at me and said, ‘Just give us the sign back and we’ll be on our way,’” Roy continued.

Roy wrote that she offered to allow police to search her car as well as the cottage.

“They were readying to search our cottage when a new picture came through that made it clear that the rims on my CR-V were different than those of the perpetrator’s vehicle,” she wrote.

The entire incident lasted 45 minutes, according to Roy, and during that time, she said Spera asked her, “‘How many Honda CR-Vs do you think are driving around Old Saybrook with Maine plates?’”

“They aggressively questioned my brother, who is clearly developmentally delayed, with no regard for his handicap or assumption of his innocence,” she wrote. “They peered into my car windows and kept demanding that I return the signs without any regard for my lack of criminal history and assurances that I would never do something like that, especially with my brother in my company.”

Roy wrote that she was especially aggrieved by her brother’s hurt feelings. According to her account, several of the officers apologized, but “the two most domineering officers left immediately after realizing they had the wrong people.”

“CJ told them, ‘I’m a nice person,’” she wrote. “After they had gone, he said to me, ‘Those people had guns.’” She added that the police had made her brother “feel threatened and unsafe.”

Follow-up Meeting

After filing a formal complaint about the incident, the Roy family met on Oct. 12 with Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl P. Fortuna, Jr., and members of OSPD, including Captain Jeffrey DePerry, Patrol Sergeant Christopher DeMarco, and Spera, to discuss what had occurred the previous Saturday.

According to Rebecca Roy’s account of the meeting, “The officers involved...apologized to my brother and my family for the way we perceived their actions. We appreciate their willingness to have a conversation with us and are relieved to report that CJ left the meeting with a stronger sense of security and safety. At this time, OSPD will not be releasing a public apology.”

Fortuna issued a press release on Oct. 15.

At the Oct. 12 meeting, “[t]he officers explained themselves and, more importantly, listened as the family described how much the actions of the police hurt and scared the family,” according to the press release. “For this, I apologized to the family on behalf of the town. The family was then provided with information from the Police Department on the mandatory training they receive and practices officers follow when interacting with disabled adults along with a promise to review those efforts to determine if more training would be beneficial.”

Fortuna added in the release that he “would hope that Ms. Roy and her family can accept my apology for the hurt that they have endured. This incident and its aftermath have been thoughtfully considered and reviewed, and should continue to be examined to determine how the situation was handled, and whether it could have been handled differently.”

The first selectman declined to answer specific questions from Harbor News about whether the police had apologized not for their handling of the matter but for the family’s perception of their actions, whether he or OSPD believe the officers’ handling of the matter to be justified, and whether, in his opinion, four police cruisers were warranted in response to the gravity of the crime.

At press time, Spera declined requests for body camera and police vehicle camera footage, police dispatch audio, and comment on the matter. The Harbor News will continue to seek that information.

Rebecca Roy did not respond to requests for an interview.

Down Syndrome Association Weighs In

The Down Syndrome Association of Connecticut (DSACT) released a press release upon learning about the incident that said the organization was “disappointed...with the way Old Saybrook police interacted with the family.

“CJ, like many people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, believes the police are there to help and protect him,” the release said. “The harsh questioning has left him afraid.

“This unfortunate incident underscores the need for sensitivity and de-escalation at all levels of public safety and emergency response,” the release continued.

The organization called upon the town to issue an apology and for all police departments to make “appropriate interactions with vulnerable populations a priority.”

After the Oct. 12 meeting, DSACT issued a second press release applauding the Roy family for speaking up and recognizing OSPD’s “swift response to the complaint and its willingness to learn from this situation.”

In a phone interview with Harbor News, DSACT Executive Director Shanon McCormick said she had spoken with Rebecca Roy, who told McCormick that “her family is satisfied with the resolution of things...They were comfortable wrapping things up, essentially.

“I’m not a policeman so I don’t...know what their training is,” McCormick said of the OSPD response. “They go through the required training. There are number of people who think that there needs to be additional training.”

DSACT will submit testimony to the state Police Transparency and Accountability Task Force, a committee mandated by the recent Police Accountability Bill. One of its charges is to examine “police officer interactions with individuals...with a mental, intellectual, or physical disability,” according to the Joint Judiciary Committee website.

“I am collecting information both on the state level and national organizations that do training,” McCormick said. She will share this information with OSPD “and pretty much anyone who is looking for the information. We are interested in keeping people safe.”

Citizens’ Police Review

The Old Saybrook Citizens’ Police Review issued a set of “preliminary demands” in response to the incident. These included formal, public apologies to the Roy family, the Old Saybrook community, and surrounding towns from each officer involved, and to “all others who have been traumatized and adversely affected by the news of these officers’ abusive conduct and their betrayal of the public trust.”

The group also demanded that Spera offer a plan outlining how he “will ensure that innocent people, based on little to no evidence of wrongdoing, will not be targeted, pressured to supply a confession, or abused” by the OSPD and that complaints against the OSPD will be shared with the Police Commission within 48 hours of their receipt.