The Town of Wilton has fired a Wilton Police Officer, after an internal affairs investigation found he had failed to follow proper procedure during a call at an underage drinking party and subsequently lied to supervisors about his actions. On Oct. 16, 2019, at the recommendation of Wilton Police Chief John Lynch, the Wilton Police Commission terminated the employment of Officer Steven Zawacki.
Adding to the decision to dismiss Zawacki was a previous disciplinary action in his file. In 2018, Zawacki was suspended for 90 days after an internal affairs investigation at the time found he had had an inappropriate sexual relationship.
Friday afternoon, Wilton Police released to members of the media a 33-page report that details the internal affairs investigation into the 2019 incident. That report lists “four distinct factors that call the credibility and truthfulness of Zawacki into question,” including information Zawacki reportedly withheld from supervisors, or misleading and false information he provided; inconsistent statements regarding facts from the call; and deactivation of his body worn camera (BWC) before his call at the residence concluded.
The report details the event in question, which occurred on Aug. 3, 2019. Zawacki and another officer, Ofc. Brandon Harris, responded to a noise complaint at a Wilton residence, and found multiple teens running away from the home into the nearby woods. Based on statements from Harris and the 18-year-old minor who hosted the party, there were numerous empty alcohol containers clearly evident on the front lawn.
Zawacki was the lead officer on the scene. While there, the audio from his body camera recorded him referencing the presence of alcohol to the teen, stating, “…you understand that there’s alcohol involved.” He also deactivated his body camera after two and a half minutes, despite being at the call for approximately nine minutes.
After Zawacki questioned the teen host, the two officers left the scene without any taking any enforcement action, including contacting the teen’s parents or notifying the shift supervisor.
What occurred began to come to light to supervisors the next day, Aug. 4, 2019, when both Zawacki and Sgt. Anna Tornello, his supervisor from the night before, responded to another call of a reported larceny at the same residence where the party had been. This time, the teen alleged that numerous items had been stolen from the home during the party. According to the report, when Tornello questioned Zawacki about what had occurred, he told her there had been no alcohol involved.
According to the report, Zawacki continued to provide inconsistent statements, ranging from the location of a “blue can [that] was possibly a Bud Light,” to telling multiple supervisors that no alcohol was present, despite his apparent knowledge that there was alcohol at the party. The report states that on multiple occasions he “knowingly withheld this information from two supervisors when asked about the incident” and that his claim is “inconsistent” with statements provided by both Ofc. Harris and the teen host, who told officials that Zawacki had “directed him to clean up the empty alcohol containers located in the yard.”
Among the evidence compiled during the investigation is video footage from Zawacki’s body camera. The report describes what occurred at the residence as captured on the audio/video recording:
“Zawacki states to the minor resident, ‘So you’re having a party and you understand that there’s alcohol involved.’ The minor resident responds, ‘Yeah, I do.’ Zawacki then asks the minor resident, ‘Why? Especially why let it get this out of control if you…’ The minor resident is apologetic stating to Zawacki that he was sorry that the police had to respond.”
“Zawacki asks the minor resident how many people he invited to the party. The minor resident responds approximately 30. Zawacki then asks the minor resident, ‘Ok, so how did this end up like 300?’”
“Zawacki later asks the minor resident, ‘Is anybody here completely intoxicated to the point that they cannot move?’ The minor resident responds, ‘No.’ Zawacki continues asking, ‘No one’s shit-faced, no one’s passing out, puking, nothing like that?’ The minor resident at this point responds, ‘I don’t think so, no.’ Zawacki responds, ‘Are you sure?’ The minor resident then points towards his residence and appears to be attempting to communicate where he had been. Zawacki states, ‘Let’s go take a look.’“
The report also describes other evidence, including the audio/video recording of Zawacki speaking with the teen during the larceny investigation the day after the party.
“The minor resident introduces Zawacki to a female friend that is in the residence by stating, ‘This is the officer that was here last night, who was phenomenal to us and let us off.’”
Sgt. Tornello was interviewed during the investigation regarding what Zawacki had told her in interactions following the underage drinking call. When asked during her interview about whether she felt Zawacki was truthful with her, she notes that Zawacki had a nickname that described his personality:
“’I don’t know if that is a personal opinion, but all I can tell you is that, I know his personality… he’s called giggle for, for a reason…so when he was telling me about not being alcohol outside, he was kinda smiling, like in a way that he wanted to maybe make me understand that maybe something was there,’” the report quotes Tornello as saying.
The investigation also included a telephone interview with the teen host. During that interview, according to the report, the teen admitted to having had alcohol at the party and that it was clear to Zawacki and Harris when they arrived, “‘…due to his own admission to the officers as well as the presence of empty beer cans and solo cops strewn about his front yard.’”
The teen also said Zawacki told him to clean up the empty containers in the yard and, “‘…if I would so choose to continue any kind of party to keep it all inside and keep outside noise to a minimum…he did not write me a citation, but he did inform me that I was 100% or he was 100% in his right to give me one…but none were written.’”
The investigation was initiated the day after the initial event, when one of Zawacki’s supervisors, Sgt. Tim Fridinger, documented the complaint about the officer’s conduct. On Aug. 5, two days after the incident, Chief Lynch ordered the investigation and Zawacki was placed on paid administrative leave, pending the investigation results.
Zawacki was hired by the Wilton Police in March 2015. He has received multiple awards during his time with the department, including a letter of recommendation (2019), two life saving pins (2019), and a letter of recognition (2017).
He had one other disciplinary action in his personnel file, an internal affairs investigation in 2018 for “an inappropriate sexual relationship.” The report on the 2019 incident redacts the full violation, which Chief John Lynch said is an effort to protect the person with whom Zawacki had the relationship. He added he couldn’t comment further or release any additional information on that particular case–even if any Freedom of Information Act request is submitted.
“I can’t speak to it other than what I’ve already said and I’ve been assured that if it’s FOIA’ed they’re going to deny it. And if it goes to a hearing the only pieces that they would be able to release would be heavily redacted and it really wouldn’t depict what occurred. That’s all in an effort to protect the person, that they feel obligated to maintain their anonymity,” Lynch told GOOD Morning Wilton.
The report on the underage drinking incident states that in the prior (2018) incident Zawacki was disciplined with a 90-day suspension after finding that he had violated three Standard Operating Procedures (SOP):
- 1-1A Code of Ethics
- 1-2 Standards of Conduct Section 1–Exercising Common Sense and Affirmatively Promoting our Values
- 5-6 Harassment in the Workplace
The 2019 report notes “a preponderance of evidence” supports the cause for finding that Zawacki violated multiple standard procedures:
- SOP 1-2 Standards of Conduct Section 9–Dishonesty or Untruthfulness: “…untruthful or misleading statements or partial truths during a legal proceeding, internal investigation, or administrative proceeding.” The report says Zawacki was not truthful, gave half-truths and misleading statements, and inconsistent statements to supervisors despite the existence of evidence. Zawacki also deactivated his body camera during the call, which he later “admittedly states that the deactivation ‘looks bad’ but claimed that he was walking back to his patrol vehicle at the time, [and] was a ‘force of habit.’”
- Standard Operating Procedure 1-2 Standards of Conduct Section 10–Competent Performance: “Members shall perform all work assignments and duties in a competent manner…When incompetent performance is discovered…we run the risk of incurring severe criticism, the loss of public trust, and the potential for civil liability.” According to the report, when Zawacki encountered evidence that underage drinking was occurring he failed to do the following: notify a supervisor, take any enforcement action, take steps to ensure the safety of minors at the location or perform any substantive investigation.
- Standard Operating Procedure 1-2 Standards of Conduct Section 14–Insubordination: “Members shall willfully observe and obey the lawful verbal and written rules, duties, policies, procedures, and practices.” The report says Zawacki’s performance failures showed his “lack of desire to perform” his duties and were a “willful dereliction of duty.”
- Standard Operating Procedure 3-24 Body Worn Camera: This procedure states that once a camera is activated to document an interaction with the public, it must stay on until that interaction is over, and with consultation of an on-duty supervisor. If it is deactivated during the course of event the officer should record on-camera the reason for turning if off and later document it. According to the report, “…the BWC was deactivated at a point in time where it appeared Zawacki was being approached by additional youths at which point he abruptly turned around and deactivated the BWC. “
- Standard Operating Procedure 5-3 Minors in Possession of Alcohol: “’The officer’s first concern should be for the health and well being of the individual.’ In addition, the section Enforcement Options for 16 and 17 Year Olds states in part, ‘If an arrest is not made and alternative enforcement action is decided upon, the investigating officer will have a parent or guardian advised of the incident prior to releasing the youth from custody, whether at police headquarters or at the scene.” The report states that despite knowing there was alcohol present at the residence, Zawacki made “no effort to check on minors known to be inside.” Also, while the teenaged host of the party was 18-years-old, the report said it would be “reasonable to believe” there were minors present who were younger than 18, and that Zawacki made no effort to contact parents or guardians.
Chief Lynch’s Take
Police Chief John Lynch spoke with GOOD Morning Wilton on Friday afternoon after the report was released. While he was limited in what he could say by town attorneys, the only topic he declined to elaborate on was Zawacki’s prior discipline incident involving an inappropriate sexual relationship.
Lynch confirmed his decision to recommend that the Commission dismiss Zawacki was based in part on that earlier incident. “Granted they were two separate incidents, not connected, but it shows a systematic kind of behavioral problem.”
He noted that the two disciplinary incidents were the only such events in Zawacki’s personnel file.
In making the recommendation for dismissal, Lynch consulted with his next-in-command, Capt. Rob Cipolla–who oversaw the investigation–and Capt. Tom Conlan. “I’ve never made a decision like that without getting their input and I think in this case it was unanimous that it should go in front of the Commission.”
Ofc. Harris was suspended for only one day following the incident. “The difference is he didn’t lie, when the sergeant asked him he said, ‘Absolutely there was alcohol.’ He addressed the disconnect. What Zawacki should have done is called the sergeant and said, ‘We have alcohol here,’ and that’s the way it’s supposed to work.”
Even though it brings negative attention to the department, firing Zawacki was necessary, says Lynch, for several reasons, not least of which is what he said was “very poor judgement, in conflict with sound policy and procedure [that] undermines the integrity of the department and trust.”
“It’s unfortunate that we have to do it, but we do have rules and regulations. The officers in this department work very hard to gain the respect of the public and maintain our integrity. When you have issues such as these, it undermines that. I feel very strongly that I won’t let the actions of one officer undermine all the good that we’ve done. We’ve had the public’s respect, we have a great approval rating and it’s frustrating,” he said, adding, “In this case we took appropriate action, as we do in every case.”
Of course, the events have an impact within the department.
“It forced officers to come forward and identify what was happening, it puts officers in a difficult spot. Thankfully, they are doing the right thing–it could be like a whistleblower kind of thing but, I think they view it that it’s their department and they’re not going to let one person undermine their efforts. And as with any discipline, it shows a baseline as to what’s acceptable, what’s not and that we do follow the rules–it lets the other officers know that there are ramifications,” Lynch adds.
Due Process for Zawacki
In addition to sitting for interviews with Capt. Cipolla during the internal affairs investigation, Ofc. Zawacki was offered the opportunity of having a due process hearing with the Police Commission to tell his side of events.
The first hearing had been scheduled for an Oct. 8 special meeting of the Police Commission, but it was rescheduled to Oct. 16 because, according to Chief Lynch, at the time attorneys for the police union and the town were in negotiations–over what, he wasn’t permitted to specify.
Minutes from the Oct. 16 special meeting note that, “…on October 10, 2019 a written agreement was executed by AFSCME Local 1429, Officer Zawacki and the Town of Wilton.” In that agreement, Zawacki waived his right to a ‘Loudermill’ due process hearing “in the event that he did not timely tender his resignation as contemplated in said written agreement.”
That agreement offered Zawacki the opportunity for a hearing even though he had waived his right to one, and the agenda for Oct. 16 noticed such a hearing; however, according to the meeting minutes the union representative for Wilton police officers had informed the Commission in advance that neither Zawacki or a union rep would attend.
At that Oct. 16 special meeting, Chief Lynch presented the internal affairs investigation report to the commissioners, and after discussion in executive session, the three commissioners voted unanimously to dismiss Zawacki.
Since then, the union has filed a grievance complaint on Zawacki’s behalf, Lynch reports. Under the collective bargaining agreement the Commission will hear the argument challenging their decision, at which point they can reconsider and make a final ruling. That hearing is scheduled for a special meeting on Nov. 19. At that point, if the commission sustains the termination, the union can take the case to binding arbitration.
GOOD Morning Wilton has tried to reach out to Zawacki through his union representative for comment, but has not heard back as of publication. We will continue to try to reach him.