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Fairfield town hall explores questions of police issues

Fairfield Mayor Connie Boyer, left, leads a town hall with Fairfield Police Chief Dave Thomas Saturday morning at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center. (Image courtesy of Fairfield Media Center)
Fairfield Mayor Connie Boyer, left, leads a town hall with Fairfield Police Chief Dave Thomas Saturday morning at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center. (Image courtesy of Fairfield Media Center)
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FAIRFIELD – Fairfield Police Chief Dave Thomas participated in a town hall about police procedures Saturday morning at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center.

The forum was organized by Fairfield Mayor Connie Boyer, who joined Thomas on stage inside the Stephen Sondheim Center for the Performing Arts. The event was open to the public, but in-person attendance was limited to 50. Everyone else could watch it online through the Fairfield Media Center’s YouTube page.

Boyer explained in her introduction that she had been wanting to do a town hall with the police for more than a year. In the summer of 2019, Fairfield was rocked by a string of burglaries to businesses all over town, including La Hacienda, Fairfield Golf & Country Club, Impact Fitness, Eagles Club, Imperial Buffet and others. No arrests were made in the case until February 2020, when a Fairfield man, a Birmingham man and an unnamed juvenile were charged.

Before the arrests, Boyer said people in town began asking why it was taking so long to find the perpetrators, and she wanted to give the police an opportunity to talk about how they conduct their investigations.

During Saturday’s town hall, Thomas said it’s important for law enforcement to gather enough evidence before making an arrest, because an arrest triggers “all the clocks to start.” The police have to divulge their evidence to the arrestee’s defense attorney. The defendant could demand a speedy trial in 90 days.

“We want to make sure we’ve looked under every rock possible and talked to every possible witness,” Thomas said.

When the police have DNA evidence in a case, the DNA is sent to the state crime lab. But all other law enforcement agencies in the state are sending their DNA evidence to the state, too, so it can take a few months to get results back. Thomas said he tells crime victims, especially victims of “big crimes,” that their case might not be resolved in days or even weeks but in months. Thomas tries to get those victims to see that patience is necessary, and that if the prosecution tries to rush its case, there will be less evidence to present at trial.

Boyer invited Fairfield police officer Brian Burnett to come on stage and describe de-escalation training, how to calm people embroiled in a tense situation so violence does not erupt. Burnett said officers receive at least 25 hours at the academy on communication.

“As a department, we have continuous training after the 25 hours of building communication and just talking with individuals,” Burnett said.

Boyer asked Burnett and Thomas to talk about the issue of “systemic racism,” and whether that’s come up in their training. Burnett said the Fairfield Police Department prides itself on its embrace of equality.

“I don’t want to say there is no issue with any police officer,” he said. “There’s always that one that [gives us] a bad name, and they usually get the most publicity. And that personally bothers most police officers who work hard every day.”

Later in the morning, Boyer asked Thomas how law enforcement prioritizes service calls. Thomas said some calls are emergencies that require immediate attention, such as a medical emergency or someone who is being assaulted at that very moment. Other calls are deemed non-emergencies, like barking dogs or illegally parked cars. Officers respond to those calls after they have responded to the most pressing emergencies, and sometimes they’re not able to get to them during their shift, and the call is passed to the next officer on duty.

Next, the topic turned to wellness checks, and the circumstances under which the police can enter a person’s home to check on someone. Thomas said there are only a few scenarios in which the police will enter a person’s home through force, and they are: 1) After obtaining a search warrant from a judge; 2) The presence of “exigent circumstances,” such as officers smelling gas or seeing a person lying on the floor inside.

“Sometimes we’ll get three or four wellness check call on the same person, and nobody has gone to check on the person,” said Thomas, who remarked that dispatchers often ask callers to check on the person before involving the police.