Westporters respect, admire, even love their police department.
Westporters hate laws that hamper law enforcement, attract criminals, and allow juvenile car thieves to return here again and again, sometimes even taunting officers.
Both themes emerged strongly last night, at a Town Hall forum with the Westport Police command staff, a representative of the Bridgeport Auto Theft Task Force, and 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker.
The panel at last night’s forum (from right): 1st Selectwoman Jen Tooker, Police Chief Foti Koskinas, Westport Police command staff David Farrell, Ryan Paulsson, David Wolf, Anthony Prezioso, Jillian Cabana, and Bridgeport Auto Theft Task force officer David Scinto. Not pictured: Eric Woods. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Police Chief Foti Koskinas and his top aides told the crowd of over 150 — including his counterparts from neighboring towns, and several TV crews — that several factors contribute to the thefts, which so far this year number 50.
One is the number of expensive cars owned by Westporters. Unfortunately — despite repeated warnings — residents continue to leave their cars unlocked, with the keys in the ignition or fobs inside, and valuables in plain sight.
One of the 2 BMWs driven by the pair to the Bayberry Lane carjacking had been stolen the night before on Church Lane. A resident left his car running, while he went into a restaurant to pick up a takeout order.
Residents can take precautions to make it harder for thieves to spot and steal vehicles, Koskinas and the officers noted.
But another element in the rash of thefts stems from laws passed several years ago by state legislators, severely limiting consequences for juvenile offenders. They know exactly how quickly they can be released; how hard it is for police to find out if they’ve committed prior crimes; how insignificantly they’ll be punished; even how constrained officers now are to give chase following a property crime.
(The carjacking was different– it was a crime against a person, as the driver was still in his vehicle. However, police must still consider many factors like traffic, weather and road conditions when giving chase — things that people in stolen cars never consider.)
Two people confront a car owner in his garage on Sunday.
Koskinas and his department received several strong rounds of applause, with most speakers beginning their remarks by thanking them for all they do despite the challenging circumstances.
But applause was even more sustained for speakers who demanded that the General Assembly revisit, and revise, legislation that hamstrings police at many levels of their work, particularly with juvenile offenders.
Police are also impacted by a “Police Accountability Law,” which make them more responsible for decisions made in the heat of the moment, including during a crime and while trying to apprehend a criminal.
“We are not inept,” Lieutenant Anthony Prezioso said. “But criminals know what we can and cannot do. They know what lines to cross, and what the system offers them at their age. They flaunt it.”
“This is not a partisan issue. It’s a safety issue,” said Westport Representative Town Meeting member Jimmy Izzo.
Though different municipalities have different priorities, Koskinas noted that car thefts have ramifications beyond taking property, and violating trust. Stolen cars are often used in other crimes, including burglaries, robberies, drug deals and drive-by shootings, in cities like Bridgeport, Waterbury, Hartford, even Newark.
The juvenile justice system works for “98 or 99%” of youths arrested, Prezioso said. He supports the move toward restorative justice — with accountability to parents and themselves — rather than punishment.
But for “the other 1 or 2%,” the loopholes are wide. And widely exploited.
Prezioso described the pandemic’s impact on juvenile justice. When courthouses were shut, it created a backlog of cases that continues today.
“The same 50 to 75 kids across the state are responsible for most of the crimes,” Deputy Chief Ryan Paulsson said.
“We know exactly who they are. But our hands are tied.”
When the public spoke, several asked about personal safety. Beyond the oft-repeated advice — lock cars always; keep them in a garage, with keys, fobs and valuables removed — officers recommended lights all around a property, including the back; being aware at all times; making sure vehicles have tracking devices, and calling police for any suspicious activity.
Knowing your neighbors, and working together, also helps.
Diane Lowman was among 2 dozen people who spoke at last night’s forum. (Photo/Dan Woog)
Yet the loudest applause came from residents who castigated politicians who promoted, and passed, legislation that has led to the current situation.
Koskinas agreed. While praising support he’s received from Westport officials, who provide him with the tools and personnel he needs — along with the regional cooperation of many law enforcement agencies — he made the “not great analogy” with the current debate on gun safety.
“Cars are bullets too,” he said. “An unsecured car can become as dangerous as an unsecured gun.”
In the aftermath of the carjacking, Koskinas said, all of Westport’s legislators reached out to him.
“Our state legislature needs input from police departments — and everyone here” to change the current laws, he said, to robust applause.
“I hope they’re as tenacious about this as they were when they passed the Police Accountability bill.”
(Hat tip: Bill Dedman)