“A lot of people with special needs don’t react very well to a police officer in uniform, but they might react very well to a grandparent picking up the phone,” said Westport, Connecticut Police Chief Fotios “Foti” Koskinas.
That’s why Koskinas’ department has partnered with local organizations to set up a voluntary registry for family and friends of people with mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, panic attacks or who appear violent if they approach the police.
The registry allows family members or friends to flag anyone who could benefit from additional support, and provides information on how best to de-escalate situations with them.
As soon as the police receive a call, the computer will flag any person involved in the situation in the log by name and address. Additional information about ways to communicate with a person at that address, including contact information for family members, can be obtained by a responding officer before arriving at the person’s doorstep.
Koskinas’ officers also receive critical incident training to deal with mental health and substance abuse issues. They practice deactivating volatile situations using alternatives other than force.
“We prepare for storms. We prepare for an active shooter. We prepare for traffic accidents. We prepare for hazardous material incidents,” Koskinas said. It is equally important, he explained, to prepare for any situation with a citizen with mental health problems.
Under Koskinas’ leadership, the Westport Police Department has implemented several programs to improve its relationship with the community and protect citizens and officers from negative encounters.
“We started our body camera program in 2014. We were one of the first, if not the first, in Connecticut to carry body cameras,” the chief said. “Looking forward to 2020, everyone is saying that body cameras provide accountability. We, the Westport Police Department, can say, ‘That’s good. Not only do we support it, but we’ve had it for six years.’ “
He has also given importance to the community police. When high school is in session, Westport police officers engage in “Dodge-A-Cop” dodgeball games with local teenagers. In the summer, the department switches to cornhole games in the park. Both programs pair police officers with local teenagers, meeting them in a friendly environment.
Where this really helps, according to Koskinas, is building trust in the event of an emergency.
“It’s great when the police officers see the kids and everyone knows them by name. It doesn’t always have to be ‘Officer,'” the chief said. “We’ve had real lockdowns. These kids have had the comfort of going to the school resource officer … and saying, ‘We have a relationship with the police, and I’m concerned about this.'”
Koskinas says his experience as an immigrant shapes his mindset and informs the way he runs his police department. He first arrived in Westport at the age of 11, speaking English. His Greek parents tried everything to get him to learn the language before moving to the US, but he admits he “resisted them”.
While Koskinas admits she had a much easier transition than many immigrants, she saw what it’s like to be an “outsider” not speaking English.
“He looks at things differently,” says Jennifer Tooker, Westport’s First Selectwoman. “When he thinks about solutions, he always thinks about everybody winning. And I think that’s amazing in a police chief and a leader.”
Ultimately, Koskinas’ visibility and community outreach may be his most important contribution to Westport. Even small children know “Chief Foti”.
“It’s in the community, it’s everywhere all the time,” said Dan Woog, a community activist who runs a local blog.
“And it’s all there… little kids know it, ‘Foti!’ they say. Who calls the police chief by his nickname?”
Programming Note: CNN’s annual “Champions of Change” The TV special, featuring Chief Foti and 11 other community champions selected by CNN anchors and reporters, will premiere on Saturday, September 24 at 8:00 PM ET.