Ordinance Rules, New PD Headquarters, And M-ATV Addressed By Police Commission
Newtown Action Alliance members and other residents addressed the Board of Police Commissioners on July 7, hinting at proposed changes they would like to see made to local ordinances.
While Chairman Joel Faxon said their attendance was appreciated, he also explained that their efforts needed to be directed elsewhere if action is to be made.
All members of the police commission were present via online links or phone calls in to the group on Tuesday night.
According to a Facebook post by NAA board member Don Lococo that appeared this week on the Newtown Forward page, NAA is working on three proposed Newtown firearms ordinances. The group wants to prohibit the possession of firearms on any Town property; prohibit possession of any firearm while participating in or attending any demonstration being held at a public place; and restrict the open carry of firearms. NAA provided comprehensive submissions, Faxon noted, to the commission prior to the meeting.
Faxon addressed the item, listed under New Business as simply Newtown Action Alliance, before opening the virtual floor.
The duties of the board, he said, are to appoint the Chief of Police; appoint, promote, suspend and remove officers of the police department; and serve as the traffic authority for the Town.
“We don’t pass ordinances, we don’t rule on them, or anything like that,” he said. “We’re limited by statute and charter to what we do.”
Newtown resident Andrew Buzzi opened public comments by calling the notice in the agenda listing for NAA “insufficient for the topic and the submission by Newtown Action Alliance.”
He was more concerned about the process, he said, than the proposals from NAA. The power to propose or amend ordinances rests with the Legislative Council, he read from a prepared statement. He voiced a concern that the error in the venue, “together with the insufficiency and vagueness of the notice, create a justified concern by the public of an attempt to disrupt the process and suppress public participation.
“If the Newtown Action Alliance wishes to bring these proposals to Newtown,” he continued, “it must respect the rights of the public to follow proper procedure.”
Any discussion on Tuesday by the Police Commission would be premature and misplaced, he said.
Speaking on Tuesday, Lococo was the first from the group to explain that they had been told to address the police commission with their ordinance proposals.
“The focus all along has been to do things the right way,” he said. “We wanted to make sure to have the process started.”
Lococo shared stories of counter-protestors at political events in recent years, and of dealing “with provocateurs who have come to Newtown, and it has not always been nice.
“I don’t want to police to have to wait for something to happen before an ordinance is enacted,” he said.
Resident Jackson Mittleman, a former co-chair of Jr NAA, also spoke.
“This issue requires all of us to step up,” he said. Jackson told the commission of being at peaceful gatherings, with fellow young adults, “yet we are met with people driving by, waving guns out the window, or even pointing guns at us.
“We can’t have people driving around and pointing guns. We have the right to protest as much as they do,” he said. “It re-traumatizes kids when that happens.
“This is about more than health and safety,” he said. “It is also about mental health and safety.”
NAA Chair Po Murray said that shortly after 12/14, the Connecticut Citizens Defense League (CCDL) decided to travel to Newtown, to Starbucks, to hold a Gun Appreciation Day.
The Newtown Starbucks closed early that day after many people called to report to management what was about to happen, she said.
“But many gun enthusiasts still showed up, which was quite intimidating for many residents,” she added.
Protests outside the National Shooting Sports Foundation, she said, are meant to be calm and peaceful.
“Increasingly, the gun rights enthusiasts have become more aggressive,” she said. “It is very intimidating.”
Her son has found himself during such events standing next to men who are armed, she said, summarizing, “It is not a fair environment in Newtown.”
After hearing a few additional similar remarks, the board’s chair said that those who spoke on Tuesday are “welcome to tell the Legislative Council that you made contact with the police commission. We read and reviewed your materials, but the Legislative Council is the committee to present the materials to.
“They can draft with the proper language. It is a complex area. We do not have statutory jurisdiction to propose language,” he said.
“Tell them, ‘We would like this as an ordinance,’” he added. “You will get a thorough vetting and a fair hearing.
“We appreciate the work you did,” he later said. “It was well researched.”
Update From The Chief
Also on Tuesday, Police Chief James Viadero offered an update on police training and the construction of the town’s new police headquarters, and addressed a question from one commissioner, who said she had been approached by “a lot of people about the perception” of one of the department’s vehicles.
Newtown police officers have been “relatively busy in the last few weeks,” the chief noted, as the state entered Phase 2 of pandemic re-openings. A training schedule for officers is being developed, including one-day training with an out-of-state group that will focus on de-escalation, and an opportunity to work on diversity training, he said.
Construction at 191 South Main Street, where the new police headquarters will be located before the end of the year, “is going well,” the police chief reported. Work is “a bit ahead of schedule,” he noted.
“Walls are sheet rocked, electrical is in, the building is being painted, floors are being tiled, and the outside exterior is starting to pretty much look like a police department now,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, and we’re starting to get into the final details.”
IT work, electrical details, and the transition from 3 Main Street to the new location are still to come, said Viadero, who added that he is “really, really happy with the progress.”
The department continues to limit access to the public, per its COVID-19 protocols, he said.
One officer was quarantined several weeks back, he said, for ten days, but has since returned to work. Another officer had traveled out of state, which became one of the quarantine states while the officer was there, the chief said.
“We brought him back, we screened him, had him tested before he returned to work,” Viadero said. “We’re still adhering to our protocols. We’re trying to stay ahead of the curve, stocking up on PPEs.”
The chief anticipates a second round of infections in the fall, he said. The town has continued to keep the department well stocked with supplies that are needed, he said.
Viadero said he and other regional chiefs have been talking about recent demonstrations in response to the death in May of George Floyd.
“We’re looking at a regional approach to how we can work at some of the issues that our communities are facing and our PDs are facing,” he said. “We thought it best as a Danbury-based region, we all should work with Danbury. We’re all in a suburb of Danbury, so what happens in Danbury and what happens in our communities is reflective of one another.”
Chiefs in Bethel, Brookfield, New Milford, and Ridgefield have been working for several weeks, he said. An event coordinated among those towns is in the works, he mentioned.
The chief reported that the department plans to issue a request soon for a temporary assignment in its detective division, following the June retirement of Detective Joseph Joudy. An open application testing period will close on July 13, he said, after which applications will be reveiewed.
In response to Commissioner Joan Plouffe, who asked about department morale, Viadero said he thinks everyone is doing well.
Issues currently facing law enforcement can be pressing on officers, he said, especially on the heels of COVID-19’s impact. “But we’re talking to our officers every day, trying to offer them assistance if they need it, just trying to keep the morale boosted as best we can.”
There’s a lot of support in the community, he added.
‘An Important Tool’
Later in the meeting, Plouffe mentioned hearing from residents about a department-owned Humvee. While the department does own one of those vehicles, Viadero said what most people mean when they ask about that vehicle is in fact an M-ATV acquired by the department in August 2019. Plouffe concurred, agreeing with the chief’s thoughts.
“It’s an armored vehicle that was provided by the military, and we have officers that are assigned to an emergency services unit with the Danbury Police Department,” he then said. “As a police department we train for, unfortunately, events like active shooters, who may barricade themselves inside a house, things of that nature.
“We’ve had several events in Newtown, since Sandy Hook, that predicated our officers and our team to have to go out. When we saw the availability of that vehicle, when it was offered to us, we got that vehicle at low cost,” he said.
The police chief pointed out that use of that vehicle would have been helpful in May 2018, when the region was hit by a macroburst.
“There were a lot of calls for service, and one of those calls for service we had considerable amount of damage caused to some cruisers, one in particular,” he said. “That was very, very costly.
“I saw that other towns use that vehicle for that purpose, and water rescue, and areas that are inaccessible, and we had the opportunity to pick up that vehicle, to use in that nature.”
Other natural disasters will also present themselves as opportunities to use that vehicle, he said.
Viadero understands community concerns about the militarization of police.
“That is not our intent,” he stated. “The intent with the M-ATV is to have equipment that will serve the town’s police officers and help them respond to situations when needed.
“In my experience, where someone is barricaded with a weapon,” he said, “a vehicle like that allows our officers, to an extent, to de-escalate a situation. We’re able to respond. We don’t put ourselves in a deadly force situation. And in most instances, people see a vehicle like that, our officers can approach and negotiate an event. It allows us to safely bring an event like that to a successful conclusion, where nobody gets hurt.”
The police chief mentioned a January 2016 incident, during which a man had threatened suicide while inside a Sandy Hook business. Police were alerted, and shortly thereafter located the man inside his vehicle, parked on Oakview Road, just north of that road’s intersection with Wasserman Way.
Newtown High School was initially put into lockdown, then lower security lock-in mode. The Danbury-based SWAT team was called in to assist Newtown police on that call, along with other agencies.
“We had to wait for our emergency services unit to get here from Danbury,” Viadero said. “Reports show the wait was nearly two hours. It kind of took a long time. We had everything shut down in that area of town.”
Having the armored military vehicle already in town could have shortened the duration of that emergency, the chief believes.
As with that call, the M-ATV is now available to other towns if needed, Viadero later stated.
The M-ATV is not used on patrol, the police chief pointed out. It is not used for public events like Touch-A-Truck, nor will it be presented in a parade.
“It is an important tool that we need,” he said. “I wish I could say that events of active shooters have gone down. I hope that we never have to use it that way. But as a police department, we have to be prepared for all events.”
He also acknowledged costs involved with the specialized vehicle, including maintenance.
“I understand the concerns about the maintenance costs, and that residents are concerned,” he said. “If it becomes cost prohibitive, then we don’t need that. I am fully cognizant of the perception,” he said, adding that he, too, has talked to a number of groups about the vehicle and why it is here in town.
“It’s a tool that hopefully we’ll never ever, ever need, but it’s a tool that’s there,” he said.
First Selectman Dan Rosenthal spoke up, saying he and Viadero had spoken before the acquisition last year.
“Basically everything that Chief just said, we discussed,” Rosenthal said. “This department does not have a history of parading military surplus vehicles and equipment.
“These are under lock and key,” he continued. “It’s there if, God forbid, we ever need it. They are not something we’re flaunting as a show of force for the police department. Should the region need it, it’s there.”
The two men agreed, the first selectman said, that if maintenance costs become prohibitive, another discussion will be held.
Faxon also commented on the vehicle, saying it is important to have such tools available.
“Having regional assets available in serious emergency situations,” he said, “you don’t want to be hindsight, saying ‘God, I wish we’d had that piece of equipment because we could have saved somebody’s life,’ or avoided a serious property problem that you wouldn’t have [had] otherwise.”
“Given that it’s under lock and key, given that it is not anything that’s out unless there is a serious, top-shelf emergency for a priority item, I fully support the continued possession of the vehicle,” he said.
“It doesn’t cost anything, really, for us to have it and to have it in an emergency situation; particularly given the prudence of the use that we have, and the people that we know are making the decisions in this town for utilizing a piece of equipment like that, I have no problem whatsoever with that being in our possession, and used hopefully never.”