The last month has seen hundreds of protests in big cities and small towns following the death of George Floyd while being restrained by police, and the shooting and killing by police of two more people–Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. The events have ripped open the discussions on systemic racism against Black Americans and incidents of police brutality.
Even here in Wilton, the conversation is happening. Hundreds of people took part in a rally against racism and for peace, which then morphed into a march to Town Hall and a sit-in by about 60 teens who demanded answers to questions about racial bias among law enforcement and pushed for defunding police.
Wilton Police Chief John Lynch has been in the center of it all–representing his department in these discussions and standing in the center of angry crowds. A 35-year member of the town’s police department, he has long had a perspective on the topic from the inside and now oversees how the department is managed in all areas of racial equality and justice–from questions about targeting people of color in traffic stops to anti-bias training.
GOOD Morning Wilton talked with Lynch about the issues surrounding police and Black people–whether that’s as members of the public or job candidates. Here is our Q&A.
[Editor’s note: the interview was conducted on June 19. We have edited the video interview for clarity and brevity, but it’s still almost 25 minutes long. It’s followed by a condensed written transcript of the video, broken out by topic and individual video clips.]
GOOD Morning Wilton: What we see happening around the country–incidents of racial profiling, ongoing protests, clashes between police and protestors–it’s not something that we’ve seen here in Wilton. So although I do want to acknowledge that I’m speaking from a very different place than a person of color or someone in law enforcement, but personally, I want to know what the last few weeks have been like for you seeing what’s been going on.
Wilton Police Chief John Lynch: You know, it was very difficult at first because one, we don’t feel like we show bias here. We make great efforts not to do that and to recognize what it is and teach our officers to treat people fairly–it’s right in our mission statement. We treat everybody equal, as if they’re the same.
GMW: So when you see the things that are happening, the unrest, or even during the walk that was held here in Wilton, when you hear the questions that some of the teenagers were asking you, how does that affect you and what do you go through when that kind of discussion is happening?
JL: Well, it was something that I have not experienced in 35 years here. It was very challenging. But we’re taught from the very beginning in the Police Academy, we have to have a thick skin, our peace can’t be breached. That’s the role that we have, that’s our obligation.
So to have people screaming at me, I didn’t appreciate that. I thought that was very unfair. I’m all for having a conversation and trying to answer questions. At first, I tried to answer questions, but I was shouted at, talked over, that kind of thing. It was great to see the community leaders step in and vouch for me and our department. That tells us that we are working hard and trying to connect with our community.
I said it that night, several times, my office will be open (or my zoom), it will be open for anybody that wants to talk. And I did hear from the NAACP and we got together. The chiefs of police work really well with them. And they’re positive. So that’s what we’re trying to be, is positive. Let’s figure this out and let’s move forward.
GMW: One of the things I noticed as part of that conversation that day, it’s one thing to talk about general issues and things that are happening nationally and elsewhere. It’s another when you’re talking about things locally. And the overriding thing that I do hear from Wilton residents is, that’s not the Wilton Police.
And I know I’ve known you for a very long time, but no one and no department is perfect. And I think part of the conversation is for everyone to take a look at themselves and examine, Where have I failed and, and where do I need to improve? Whether it’s conversations about race or really anything else, but particular to this conversation.
So internally in your department, are there conversations like that that are happening? How are the conversations going within your department?
JL: Minute by minute, I’m always thinking, What could I have done better? Or that I messed that up. We meet as a department. We really work hard to keep the communication up and down. Matter of fact, it’s our frontline officers that come up with these great ideas and point out things that need to be changed. I think that really is why we do such a good job here and are responsive.
I’m not going to say that we are perfect. Clearly we’re not. Every year we publish our annual report and it doesn’t always say we’re perfect, but what it does say is that we are on top of things and we address it. So again, I did have some meetings and some discussions with some of the officers who had different opinions, all positive.
Maybe we should have been a little more public with statements and that kind of thing. Early on the thought was, I spoke with our First Selectwoman Lynne Vanderslice that we do it as a town because that’s how we work. We just spent two or three months working as a town, 16-20 hours a day with the COVID. So that’s how we operate here and we really look for that input. And so I think with all of us being involved, we get that input and we can adjust and make changes.
GMW: I imagine you’ve had conversations with people in the community too, since the Walk for Peace and to End Racism. How have those conversations gone?
JL: It’s been incredibly positive. I thought there would be a lot of negative feedback, but I think people actually look and see that we are responsive. The one question I kept asking is, “Show us where we’re failing and we’ll fix it. We are more than welcome to take the criticism because, in the end, it turns into a positive. What we don’t know, we can’t fix. So, I’m asking people to let us know where we’ve failed or where we can do better, and then we’ll adjust.
But most of it was positive and it was incredible to see people that I’ve known throughout the years that know me and know our department, know many of the officers, standing up for us and vouching for us.
GMW: On occasion, you hear this stereotype of Wilton as being a place where people of color are sure to get pulled over more than white people. Is there truth to that? Or what kind of proof is there that the stereotype isn’t true. And when you hear it, how do you respond?
JL: I’d want to know who was pulled over. We do have the statistics, state-mandated, every year. Every stop we take statistical data and we send it to the state. Then at the end of the year, they use the statistical data to see if there are any irregularities.
Wilton notoriously for years since the day I started, we were very proactive in motor vehicle enforcement because we feel it provides a sense of safety, visibility. People aren’t going to be speeding through town, hopefully it lowers the number of serious accidents as well. So when you make a lot of stops, you have to look and see what your demographic is. So Wilton itself is different compared to the people that drive through.
You have like 30,000 cars each day using Route 7 coming from some of the cities and area towns. So sometimes that’s skewed, but we’ve always been within the parameters that are acceptable.
I really try to wrap my head around this motor vehicle stop thing. Because driving down the road, you really can’t tell who’s driving, you really can’t see in the windows anymore. So the last couple of weeks I’ve been kinda like, ‘You know what, I don’t know if that’s a person of color, is that, uh, I don’t know. I just know it’s an orange Toyota or something. There are times where they drive by you and it is, and if they were stopped because of that, it would be targeted. But I’m saying generally the car is stopped for speeding or equipment violation or, making a left out of the center where they’re not supposed to, or something like that.
GMW: I want to move to a topic that is getting a lot of attention nationally, the call to defund the police, police reform. The conversation is a very complicated one, but it’s also very different in a town like Wilton versus a city like Minneapolis or New York City or even Norwalk. This call to defund the police, even just police reform, how does that relate to a department like Wilton and, and what do you think about that discussion?
JL: Defunding to me is kind of a knee jerk reaction. I look at it as a societal control, maybe people pushing back at too much authority, I don’t know. I understand the issue is that, like you said, Wilton and some of these area towns are so much different than the big cities. We’re a smaller, tight-knit community.
The reason we have SROs in the schools, one, is for a sense of safety and security. We start introducing ourselves in second grade. It’s a great program, “Officer Friendly.” But it’s not just security. We work with the kids. Our SROs have made so many positive contacts and work well with the administration. We don’t go in there looking to arrest people, we’re there to help people, whether it be mental stress or mental illness or depression. I hope those officers are accessible to discuss, whereas they may not want to discuss it with their peers.
So for Wilton to defund, some people have called for getting rid of SROs. You would lose that whole connection. You wouldn’t get the services that you get now. Just look every day, what we provided with the COVID–we were delivering thermometers and PPEs. You ask us to do whatever it is, and we find a way to get it done.
We help with the food pantry. Those are all community positive aspects and services that we provide. So you would lose that.
And I have a question: If you defund some of these police departments, who’s going to respond to some of these domestics, or, some potential mental illness? Our officers are highly trained in dealing with mental illness, people who are stressed or for whatever reasons.
GMW: The counter-argument to that would be a health provider should be part of that first response in a situation like that. The job of a police officer has changed significantly over the years, even since you started on the force. The responsibility that the police have taken on in terms of helping with violence, in terms of helping with youth offenders and substance abuse and, some of those other parameters that you can see how they relate to, protection and violence prevention, but also it does cross over to some of the more social issues, and it involves a lot of training and it involves a lot of responsibility on the part of a police department.
JL: We have our officers trained in crisis intervention. We work with the DuBois’ Center. So typically we’ll get called if a family’s having an issue, a crisis situation. The officers, they’re all trained, certified, it’s a 40-hour program and then with followup. So they go in there and part of what they’re taught is de-escalation. So we work with these social workers together as a team. We’ll go there and our officers are trained in how to interact, how to deescalate, and then, we’ll be in contact with the professionals. But we’re there to keep the peace and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand or anybody gets hurt and deescalate. So then we call somebody like the DuBois Center, who has a mobile response unit, and then they come in and take over.
So that’s how we assist our community without coming in as a show of force. That’s the last thing we do. We’re trying to help basically keep the peace in a positive way. That’s a big part of what we do every day is de-escalating situations.
GMW: You mentioned the show of force. Can you explain how that works, when the use of force is something that’s permitted?
JL: We have a very strict policy. And as a result of the last few weeks, we are working on posting our policies, we’ll make them public on our website. I think that’s a good start.
You hear a lot of these calls for making changes, no choke-holds. We already have that covered–we don’t allow any kind of a neck chokehold. The only time that could ever happen is in a deadly force situation. That’s when your life or another person’s life is in danger. So it’s all controlled.
We do monitor, because I know people were saying we’re not capable of self-monitoring. But it is transparent in many ways. We do have very strict policy and we will be posting it soon and you’ll see how we follow. We don’t shoot at cars, we’re not allowed to that’s, that’s a statewide policy. The governor’s recent order, we already abide by everything.
GMW: In terms of other forms of accountability, I know that all of the officers wear body cams, but what other kinds of accountability does the department have in place?
JL: With the body-worn cameras, we’ve had them for quite a few years. We probably had in-car cameras for 15, 20 years–we were one of the first to do that. We recognize the need for it. And 99.9% of the time, the officer is found to be within policy and that kind of thing, although we always do find something that we could do better. So it really is a win-win as far as accountability.
We have a very strict investigative process, to national standards. There are unions, so we work with them as far as disciplinary measures. There’s also fairness, it has to be equitable.
And we also have a police commission that does the hiring, firing, any suspension more than three days is in the hands of the Police Commission. Also, the Board of Selectmen oversees that as well. So there is strict accountability, on a day-to-day basis, and officers have been suspended. I hate doing that, but we have to maintain our integrity. And we are accountable to the town.
GMW: And are those things made public? Is the public able to find out when an officer is suspended or, an incident happens that has gone to the level of the police commission?
JL: Yes. We do make it public if it’s requested. A lot of times the officer just made a mistake and it’s kind of a learning process and they move forward with that. But most of that is all public record. It can be requested. And I know there is a push to, you know, [open] citizen complaints, officers that have had complaints. Our feeling is that we have nothing to hide, but we don’t want an officer [judged] unfairly if he has 10 complaints and none of them are legitimate or proven to be false. Because we do have people that will just [make] false complaints saying the officer said something when clearly with the video cameras, he never did or she didn’t. So I don’t know how that process would work.
GMW: In terms of the resolution being made public also?
JL: I guess we would, because it’s public record, we’re public servants. I just don’t know at what level, is it the use of force complaint? Is it because the officer was rude to somebody? At what point. So those are things that we’re working out.
GMW: You’ve mentioned hiring. I would love to talk about what the hiring practice is for the department, and also acknowledge the fact that the department is staffed with predominantly white officers. So if you could also talk about how race figures into Wilton’s hiring process.
JL: So I would say at least 20 years ago, we started going to all the colleges, trying to recruit, new officers. We recognize that our minority representation is very low. Unfortunately in Connecticut, it’s quite strict to become a police officer. It’s through the POST standards, which is the state oversight for policing.
They have to take a written test; they have to, take a psychological [test] and a polygraph [test]. We don’t receive all that many applicants. The numbers seem to have been on a downward slope in the last probably five years. We don’t see a whole lot–
JL: The number, the overall numbers. Yes. So we keep trying and, you know, obviously, we would love to hire people of a minority status. It’s just, we need to have those applicants in order to be able to hire them.
GMW: How does that application process work? Is that something that comes directly to Wilton or is it through, …how does that work?
JL: It’s a statewide system that we belong to. Potential officer candidates take one test and then can be considered by multiple [departments], they can literally pick how many departments. So it’s a one-test process, with oversight by POST–which is our Police Officers Standards Training. It just makes it easier.
And we thought that would kind of help get more applicants, more minority applicants. We used to do our own [recruiting], but had too many conflicts with other towns.
So we’d like to see better representation. So then they would take that test and there is a peer review oral interview. So they would be asked like questions, What would you do in this scenario? How would you handle this? And then we grade them on that.
Then we put it together. We take like the top 20. We look at their backgrounds. It’s a 26-page background questionnaire. And then there’s an investigative process. Again, as a police officer, you have to have your integrity; you could never testify if you lied. We look at drug use, we look at a lot of different factors that would make you fit as a police officer.
Once all that is put together, we usually take like the top six and we send them to an interview with the Police Commission and me and the two captains. And then we try to make a decision based upon that.
GMW: Today we wrote about the statement that the area police chiefs signed in conjunction with the Norwalk NAACP. What went into making that statement and how is that relationship happening?
JL: After all this, the NAACP felt that they wanted to reach out. We have a good working relationship; for example, Westport had already coordinated a food drive with the NAACP. They teamed up with them prior to any of this happening. Norwalk, they work together commonly.
So we all got together and we felt that we should make a statement in partnership with the NAACP and that’s the result of it.
We’re all appalled by the actions. We all felt that we don’t participate in those kinds of actions, or any kind of racial bias. So together as a group, we decided to make a strong statement.
GMW: What other things do you want the community to know? What else would you like people to know about the Wilton Police Department?
JL: We are a department that’s constantly adjusting, as societal standards change over time. When I started in 1985, you could shoot a fleeing felon, that was old-style policing. So every five years or so you see a significant change, whether it’s the law or it’s society that dictates, where we’re heading.
Right now I think we’re at an apex or we’re trying to figure out where we’re heading. Is it not placing bonds on lesser crimes? When do we use force? We probably need to reevaluate as a society and decide what roles, [where] policing [is] heading.
So our ears are open and we will adjust as we always have. And, we remain positive regardless of what some people are saying, but, they’re welcome–please contact me, I’d love to sit down and have that discussion.
GMW: Thank you very much as always. I appreciate the conversation, the openness and the willingness to be transparent.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that Breonna Taylor had been killed in the past month. She was shot and killed by officers on March 13, 2020.