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07/13/2021 12:00 AM

Old Saybrook Police Commission Member Calls for Greater Oversight

At the June 28 Police Commission meeting, a member of the commission accused Old Saybrook Police Department Chief Michael Spera of inappropriate actions, drawing the ire of some of his fellow commission members and outlining an apparent rift over their perception of the role of the commission.

Over the last several months Alfred Wilcox, one of two Democrats on the commission, has been rebuked by his fellow commission members for some of his criticisms of the department and for his alleged attempts to conduct independent investigations into commission matters.

At the commission meeting on June 28, Wilcox once again had strong words for the police chief and his fellow commission members.

Wilcox responded to accusations made about him, saying he “owed it to the department and our community to explain where I am coming from.” While he said he believes the department and Spera have done good, Wilcox also said he believes there was ways in which the department can do better and should change.

“Time and again I’ve encountered evidence of what to me appeared to be an unwarranted and inappropriate heavy handedness,” Wilcox said of the department.

As evidence, Wilcox mentioned a YouTube video titled “Old Saybrook Air Freshener Heroes” from 2020 in which a man is pulled over by Old Saybrook police officers at a DUI checkpoint and is questioned by officers. The video is compiled using body camera footage and begins after the driver had already been pulled over.

In the video, officers instruct the man to keep his hands visible upon leaving the car but the man puts his hands in his pockets. The man is then placed in handcuffs and his car searched. The search does not turn up anything nefarious and the man is presented with a written warning for hanging an air freshener on his rear-view mirror which the officer says is illegal.

Some viewers claim the video is evidence of harassment committed by the department against a Hispanic person over an innocuous action.

“The conduct depicted in that video was an embarrassment to our department and to our town,” Wilcox said at the June 28 meeting.

Spera did not respond to requests for comment on this article.

That was not the only incident by which Wilcox said he was troubled. Wilcox also mentioned the infamous case last fall when police officers, including Spera, lengthily questioned a man with Down syndrome in regard to a stolen street sign with which the man had no involvement, the calls from the public for a new policy that would cover citizen complaints about the department, and earlier this year a report from Spera that addressed the reasons for the high turnover of police officers within the department over the last decade.

Wilcox said that when he brought all these instances up to the commission, the majority of the commission declined to further look into them. Wilcox stated he accepted that he is not a police officer and there could be other facts that should be taken into consideration for the events

The turnover report in particular was an incident that prompted more serious accusations from Wilcox. During the meeting, Wilcox said that some former police officers stated reason for leaving the department was due to what Wilcox would call “overzealous or heavy-handed policing.”

“This included the chief requiring patrol officers to arrest people for offenses which the officer have preferred to let go with some counseling, or to just issue a citation for but not drag down to the police station and incarcerate. Again, this to me smacks of heavy-handedness directed from the top down,” Wilcox stated.

Wilcox’s criticisms weren’t only reserved for Spera and the department, however. Wilcox criticized the rest of the commission members, which includes five Republicans and two Democrats, for rejecting Wilcox’s efforts to look further into alleged wrongdoing by the department.

“It seems that whenever I raise just a question, a majority of you commissioners try to smack me down and decline to look into what might be a potential problem,” said Wilcox.

Wilcox also said that in his opinion, the public should hold the commission accountable for a failure to properly oversee the department.

“[The] chief is fond of drawing the analogy that he is the CEO and the Police Commission is the Board of Directors. I agree with that. But it is the responsibility of the Board of Directors to establish the mission, set the goals, give guidance as to the methods for meeting those goals, and monitor progress toward those ends. If we don’t do that, that’s on us. And if we don’t do that, our shareholders, the people of Old Saybrook, really should replace us,” Wilcox said in closing.

The Response

Though Wilcox stated in his comments he had no personal problem with Spera or the department, several in attendance at the meeting found Wilcox’s comments inappropriate. During Wilcox’s comments Spera interrupted to inquire if Wilcox was lodging a complaint about him, and if so, stated it should be made in the correct fashion.

Commission Chair Frank Keeney said that Wilcox’s comments should have been made in executive session and warned he may have to cut off Wilcox’s comments, though he did not ultimately do so.

Commission member Carl Von Dassel said he was “frustrated” and accused Wilcox of using his comments to editorialize and make a political case for his re-election to the commission. Joseph Maselli said that Wilcox was “cherry [picking] those big negatives” and ignoring the positives the department does.

Keeney closed by saying that he believes Wilcox operates “outside the guardrails” the commissions is required to work between.

Wilcox Responds

Contacted by the Harbor News after the meeting, Wilcox responded to some of the comments the other commission members made. He again reiterated his view that the commission needs to be more active in monitoring the department.

“I thought the police commission is about oversight and to me, oversight is active not passive,” Wilcox said.

Wilcox elaborated that to him, that meant having the commission investigating some matters rather than accepting Spera’s reports with no further action. Wilcox stressed that he wasn’t saying the chief made things up or filed bad reports. Rather, Wilcox said the commission could benefit from having people with different world views and experiences weighing in on matters that are controversial and need further examination.

As for the allegation that he was being political, Wilcox said that the five Republican members have repeatedly made their views on matters related to the commission clear in past meetings. Wilcox said that people have a right to know where members stand.

For the charge that he comments only on the negative aspects of the department, Wilcox contended that it was important not to dismiss criticisms against the department. While Wilcox acknowledged the department did good things, to him it was silly to concentrate the aspects that were universally accepted as good at the expense of the bad.

“If there’s really bad things, the commission should focus on them,” said Wilcox.

In the end, Wilcox said he hopes the public at large takes a closer look at the goings on in Old Saybrook and makes their voices heard in November.

“I think people should give all the boards and commissions more attention and I think people should get out and vote I don’t care if they’re Democrats, Republicans, or Independents,” said Wilcox.

In the November election, five of the seven commission seats will be up for grabs, including Wilcox’s own seat.