A recent news story may have painted Wilton Police with an overly broad brush, mischaracterizing the department as one that would be unfriendly to immigrants. To get a better idea of the issue’s complexity and of the WPD’s stance on handling matters related to immigrants and diversity, GOOD Morning Wilton sat down with Wilton’s public information officer, Lt. Rob Cipolla, and Capt. John Lynch, who was just named to replace departing Chief Robert Crosby as the next Chief of Police.

The article appeared last week in the Norwalk Hour, addressing whether local police departments were required to report to federal authorities when they encounter undocumented immigrants. The article quoted an official with the CT chapter of the ACLU as saying that, “Work[ing] with federal immigration officials is largely a town by town decision.” He noted that different departments around the state take different approaches to undocumented immigrants, and that some police departments may be more ‘protective’ and ‘respectful’ than others.

The story then explained that the Norwalk Police don’t ask suspects about their immigration status, and quoted an officer as saying that the department is “more into the protection of equal rights” and “an open-minded and safe community.”

That quote was followed by two paragraphs about Wilton’s Police Department that read:

In the neighboring town of Wilton, however, the police department there will reach out to Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement when a suspect’s immigration status is questionable.

“Should we have a foreign national in our custody as a result of a police investigation we do have a policy in place that requires the contact of the nearest consulate office of the individuals country of origin,” Lt. Rob Cipolla, a Wilton police spokesman, said. “In addition, we will contact ICE to determine whether the individual has any detainers that would prevent their release from custody.”

Wilton Police say the way the story was written doesn’t paint a complete picture, and may have unfairly portrayed the town’s department as one that is unwelcoming and less tolerant, and less respectful of immigrants and non-residents.

“They contrasted us to Norwalk, and that word ‘however’ was the contrast. But they did it in the context of where it described something we’re mandated to do. When we have someone who is considered a foreign national in our custody, for their benefit we need to contact their consulate, so that they have the rights afforded them as a foreign national in a foreign country. Just like if you and I were to travel to another country and for whatever reason were arrested we would want our consulate contacted so that our rights as US citizens were upheld,” Cipolla explained, repeating, “That’s something we’re mandated to do and it’s for the benefit of someone in custody.”

In fact, like their counterparts in Norwalk, Wilton officers don’t focus on immigration status very much at all. Both Cipolla and Lynch say that whether it’s an infraction or an arrest, there are routine booking questions asked of everybody–and they’re pretty basic.

“We’re usually just asking for name, address and date of birth, and phone number,” Lynch says, noting that there has been no new policy change, protocol shift, directive or targeting effort focused on immigrants, from any authority.

“It’s not unusual for the officers to make a motor vehicle stop. The person may or may not be undocumented. If they have a license, they either get a ticket, or a warning. If they don’t have a license, then we try to identify who they are so we can make sure they go to court, and that’s the extent of it. If we establish they have a residence and a family, that’s the end of it. And we have released undocumented individuals. We’ve contacted ICE in the past and they say, ‘No, it doesn’t reach a threshold.’ So it’s business as usual, nothing has changed, but we are sensitive to it,” Lynch notes.

If they determine that an individual arrested and taken into custody has immigration status issues, the department follows the TRUST act.

“Per the TRUST act, and the qualifying reasons why we can detain someone based on immigration law violation–if that becomes known then, sure, we’re going to cooperate with our federal law enforcement partners. Just like we cooperate with our other local law enforcement partners and our state law enforcement partners. We would reach out to ICE to verify information. If we don’t communicate, we’re never going to know.” Cipolla explains.

Those reasons under the TRUST act that would set off a need to involve federal immigration authorities includes:  a felony conviction; pending criminal charges where bond has not been posted; an outstanding arrest warrant; is identified as a known gang member in the database of the National Crime Information Center or any similar database or is designated as a Security Risk Group member or a Security Risk Group Safety Threat member by the Department of Correction; is identified as a possible match in the federal Terrorist Screening Database or similar database; is subject to a final order of deportation or removal issued by a federal immigration authority; or presents an unacceptable risk to public safety, as determined by the law enforcement officer.

Both Cipolla and Lynch say that they hold to a principle of objectivity and fairness–no matter who they come into contact with.

“We try to treat everyone fairly and equally,” says Lynch. “I tell people, I don’t care who you are or what crime you’ve committed–you’re still a person and that’s how you’ll be treated here.”

Cipolla says impartial and unbiased policing is what defines Wilton’s philosophy.

“From when you start in this profession, that’s what your integrity is based on. As police we can’t come into a situation with a bias or a slant. We have to be objective, fair and impartial and that’s what we do here at the Wilton Police Department and we’ve seen positive results.”

Those sensitivities extend especially to cases where the victim or witness is undocumented, notably in cases of domestic violence. Both men stress that their job is to protect everyone, no matter their immigration status.

“They can feel free to come here, we don’t ask if they’re undocumented. It’s a safe zone, so please come here and report a crime. We’ve even had it where they didn’t have a place to stay for a night and we’ll work with social services and we’ll find a place for them to stay. The fact that they’re documented or undocumented is of no concern to our day to day activities. We want them to know that we’re advocates for them, and they can approach us,” Lynch says.

Cipolla agrees. “I can’t think of an instance where we’ve had a victim or witness and we contact ICE. We don’t contact ICE for a victim or a witness.” He also says that there are visa programs in place–the U Visa–that exist to safeguard victims of crimes who have questionable immigration status.

How they hope they are viewed

Cipolla hopes all members of the public see Wilton as a department that treats all people fairly, and not as one that discriminates.

“As a police department, we thrive on the public’s trust. We need to be legitimate, our authority position needs the respect and trust of the public, otherwise our authority won’t mean anything. We do that by communicating with the public, the community policing that we do, and that’s how we gain the public trust and we are viewed as legitimate.

There’s also training that officers go through to help them better understand all people and the more diverse public that they may encounter.

“We communicate and work with other departments; we have joint task forces, information sharing and mandated training–there’s always something for sensitivity training. We have 2-3 domestic violence train-the-trainer, and the CIT (crisis intervention team),” says Lynch.

Being sensitive to all members of the community is something the department takes seriously, as they recognize how  Wilton has gotten more diverse. The demographics have changed, and with that, there’s been an effort on the part of Wilton police to change with the times as well.

“With community policing, we want to be approachable. We’re here for the public’s benefit, we’re here to provide public safety and we’re here to be part of the community we serve,” says Cipolla. “What we’ve seen in a lot of 21st century policing models is a shift from that warrior mentality of a police officer and more to the guardian mentality. We do that through community policing, we do that through being engaged in the community, being aware of who’s in our community and being involved with it.”

Lynch says sensitivity is a quality that they consciously look for even during hiring.

“In the 60s and 70s, they were just looking for someone to fill the uniform–usually the biggest, toughest guy. Now we’ve transitioned. We try to find the right character and the right individual that fits Wilton. We’ve been very fortunate that we have some really good police officers who are really caring.”

One anecdote which demonstrates that cultural sensitivity was something that the department did to help make the Syrian refugee family that now calls Wilton home feel more comfortable. They brought over a police car and some officers to meet the children and help them understand that while police may have represented something scary in Syria, here in Wilton police are working to keep them safe.

And there’s even more going on behind the scenes to help the refugee family that the public hasn’t heard about, with members of the department going above and beyond in providing assistance.

“Specific to the Syrian family, one of our officers and his girlfriend have been in constant contact and are trying to take care of them. There are frequently bags of [donated] clothes out there [in the hall] that are going to that family. We do things out in the community that we get the press involved in so that people can see what we’re doing, but there are also things that our officers are doing that the community probably doesn’t hear about,” Cipolla says.

Both men say that the department encourages people to reach out to them anytime–by calling the department or approaching officers out on duty.

“We’re open to any conversation–that’s how we improve, that’s how we solve crimes and it gives us a pulse of what the town’s expectation is, Cipolla says, and Lynch agrees:  “I hope the public feels we’re open and they can come to us anytime.”