When Foti Koskinas was sworn in as Westport’s police chief a few weeks ago, one of the speakers was Marty Bell.
Seven years earlier, the 2 men had a contentious relationship. Bell had beefs with the Police Department, where Koskinas was deputy chief. They battled hard. Now they’re buds.
That tells you nearly all you need to know about our new top cop.
But you should also know this. Among the folks Koskinas wanted to invite to the swearing-in were 2 from his Long Lots Middle School days: principal Dan Sullivan and teacher Sandy Ikard.
Both eased Koskinas’ transition, from a 6th grader new to the US unable to speak a word of English, to a 7th grader with friends, an active social life, and a love for school.
Neither could make the ceremony. But the fact that the police chief wanted them there speaks volumes.
In fact, Koskinas’ journey — physical and metaphorical — deserves its own book.
His route to Westport began in 1981 when his father Evangelos — a Greek sea captain and part owner of a shipping company — decided his children should be educated in the States. He chose Westport because a friend of his brother lived on Tomahawk Lane.
“Looking back, it was a huge adjustment,” the police chief says. “But I was welcomed with open arms.” Sullivan, Ikard and many other staff members helped. Within a year, Koskinas felt comfortable.
Some of those Long Lots friends came to the swearing-in ceremony too.
At Staples High School, Koskinas played football, wrestled, and joined Bruce Betts’ volleyball club.
He entered the University of New Haven, planning to study engineering. But many of his friends were in the school’s vaunted criminal justice program. At the time, Dr. Henry Lee was there too, working on the Richard Crafts “wood chipper” murder case. Koskinas changed majors.
He applied to the FBI, and took the US Marshals Service test. He also took the Westport Police exam, and was offered a part-time position. He headed to the state Police Academy.
The position he’s moved into — and the department he now heads — is in good shape, Koskinas says. He praises his predecessor Dale Call for handing over a force that needs “no immediate fixes.”
Both Koskinas and Call are Staples grads. Thirty or 40 years ago, that was true of nearly every officer. Most lived in town.
That’s one of the biggest differences today, Koskinas says. Though Sam Arciola and Vincent Penna of the command staff are residents and natives, few other cops are true Westporters.
Many live in Monroe, Shelton, Trumbull and Stratford. Others commute from as far as Oxford and Southbury.
“People come in for their 8-hour or overtime shift,” Koskinas says. “They do a great job. But when it’s over, they immediately head home. They don’t shop here, go to restaurants here, get their entertainment here. They don’t get to know the local residents in their off hours.”
Call, Koskinas and others — including Staples grad Ned Batlin — have tried to create stronger ties, particularly at the youth level. They’ve helped organize “Dodge a Cop” dodgeball tournaments with Staples and middle school students, among other initiatives.
That human touch is key, Koskinas says.
“The most crucial part of policing is how officers treat everyone — from the first time the call comes in, to when they pull away in their car at the end.”
Some are frivolous, of course. But, Koskinas notes, “every call is important to the person who calls.”
His officers can train with guns and tools, the chief adds. Yet the most vital training — and highest priority, and toughest — is “how to be a human being.”
That means shifting from the “warrior” us-against-them mentality, to a “guardian” mode.
Koskinas credits Call with bringing experts to help train officers in areas like de-escalation and mental illness. He made sure to put at least one officer with special crisis training on every shift.
The Westport Police Department’s strength, Koskinas says, is “without a doubt, our people. We’re very fortunate to have a good, highly educated, hard-working staff. They’re very vested in what they do.”
As chief, Koskinas has several roles. He makes sure his officers have the best training, tools and cars (“that’s their office,” he explains).
He listens to their concerns, and lets them know they’re valued. “My success will be based on how well they answer calls,” Koskinas says.
He also listens to – and understands — the public. “I’ll disagree when I have to, but I’ll always respond when I can,” he says.
He gives high marks to Westporters. “They almost always ask for what they deserve. They’re very reasonable. Their requests are not unrealistic.”
Yet the new police chief is no miracle worker. At any time, there are only 6 or 7 officers on a shift. They answer calls, write reports and handle evidence.
The total force of 63 is down from 72 a decade ago. “We’ve been told to reduce head count,” Koskinas says. “That’s a reality. The town is not less safe than it was. But when people talk about not seeing what they think is enough traffic enforcement, that’s where those 9 positions would help.”
The message he wants Westporters to hear is seen at the bottom of his letterhead: “With courage, to protect the rights of all people.”
Koskinas is proud to treat everyone with utmost respect. “I’ve arrested some real bad guys,” he says (and, though he downplays them, he has the decorations to prove it). “But they leave with respect for the way they were handled.”
The chief wants Westport to know one more thing: “My command staff and I have a true open door policy. Every phone call will be returned. That’s the only way we’ll get better.”
And when you hear Foti Koskinas’ voice, you’ll never know that just 25 years ago, he was a newly arrived 6th grader — a boy who spoke not one word of English.