How old are your kids, and how long have you lived in the area? Though my parents live in Westport – and I grew up here – I live in Fairfield with my daughters (15 and 17) and my wife who is actually a PA at Yale. I actually moved to Westport in 1981 from the Westport of Athens, Greece speaking not a word of English. My parents tried to learn English before we came, but I spoke not a word. I actually went to Long Lots School (I was in 5th or 6th grade at the time), and am forever grateful to the teachers and principals who gave me endless time. I truly believe none of what I have achieved – or where I am today – would have been possible without them. Many of those teachers and mentors came to my swearing in ceremony when I became Head of the Westport Police. Westport has always been very special to me and my family.
Tell us about joining the police force, and how you ended up where you are today? I never thought for a minute I’d grow up to be a Police Officer. I actually went to school for engineering, and while there, took some criminal justice classes and I thought I’d go to Law School. After finishing college, I decided to be a cop for 18 months or so before getting a “real job.” I almost left the force on multiple occasions, one most notably to work for the FBI, but life events stopped me, and I am so grateful to be where I am today. For four years I was with the DEA, but always as a Westport Police Officer. I am currently in my 5th year as the Head of the Westport Police. Fun fact – I am currently working toward an executive degree at the Harvard Kennedy School. I’m 47, but I am constantly trying to keep learning. I am learning about policy and government management, which has been immensely helpful during the crisis our country is facing today. I go to Boston for classes for 10 days at time. I was very nervous when I started, and had no idea if I would fit in – or could take It on – but I am so glad and grateful I have had this opportunity!
Without question, you are the one of the most famous people in Westport right now! What was your typical day like during COVID, and the last few months? In truth, there is no typical day at work with my job, and that is probably what I love most about it. My day can change in an instant from a phone call, email, or text. COVID was just another challenge on such a different scale because there were so many unknowns – it was like an invisible enemy. All of the decisions we have had to make over these past 3+ months had to be ethical, legal, and comprehensive, and nothing had clear answers or direction. We would often get info from the government and CDC in the morning, and It would have changed by the afternoon. Telling the community you protect to go to work – and be out there if you have to be (especially the essential workers) – with limited to no testing and no knowledge of what was coming down the pipe- was such a daunting task. We felt we couldn’t serve the public if we couldn’t give them the PPE and proper tools so an early objective was to figure out how to do that, while shutting down the town, and simultaneously managing all of the calls and concerns.
I truly couldn’t be more proud of our community. Despite the bad rap Westport got early on, Westport took things seriously and got to a stable place very quickly. Everyone responded and came together, and It has benefitted us all.
How have things changed in the past few weeks in the rise of all that has transpired since George Floyd’s death? In this job, there are constant challenges, and things your team may or may not agree with, and balancing communications around those challenges can be difficult. And then there are situations that are so straight forward, that what to do next is not a challenge at all. What happened with George Floyd was wrong in the first 20 seconds – it NEVER should have gotten where it did. This was such an easy incident to say to my team- if you think ANY of these actions by those who acted- or those who didn’t act- is ok in ANY way, it is time to resign. This was SO clear cut that I could look at my officers and say “time out!” If you think ANY of what you saw was justified, you are in the wrong job. If someone can’t breathe, it is your job AS A HUMAN to help them breathe. At times our job can be a contact sport and its an all out fight – but once the handcuffs are on, you tend to your wounds and theirs and assess – now what is the next step?
As a privileged white town, how do you feel that Westport has risen to the occasion during this time? As context, Westport has historically been a very outspoken, human rights oriented community- have you seen that play out over these last few weeks? The community support has been incredible. Although police have been a target across the nation, CT police are truly ahead of the game. There are many factors and policies being discussed, but 90% of these are already in place in this state. For example, hiring practices are very strict and in-depth, including a psychology test and polygraphs. In many places, if a police officer is let go from one town, they can pretty easily get a job somewhere else with no concerns about prior incidents.
As you know at the peaceful protest last week, there was some discord around the police “taking a knee.” Can you share any thoughts on what may have happened? I have never liked the word protest, as it often connotes something negative, when in fact It really is meant to be an opportunity for people to speak their minds peacefully. In advance of the protest a few weeks back, I was VERY clear with my team that I won’t stand for what’s going on in this country, and that I will support them as this time is navigated together. I also told them I would “take a knee” under three circumstances and three only: 1) For a moment of prayer 2) for a moment of silence and 3) to show that I won’t tolerate police brutality. I also was very clear that I would not take a knee for the American flag or anti-police brutality. I was up front with my team and wanted them to know ahead of time where I stood.
When the speaker called for a moment of prayer, I took a knee, as did a few others following my lead. Other police officers who happened to be further from the podium, and saw the flag, were unclear on what the knee was being taken for and chose not to. No one should tell them to take a knee in my opinion. Taking a knee means different things for different people. I shared what I was going to do, but would never force others to do the same.
At the protest, I was incredibly touched by black and white mothers who came up to give me hugs; this was one of the most touching moments imaginable as a police officer.
What have you enjoyed most about being in quarantine with your family? (to the extent you’ve spent any time at home=)) This has been a very unique time in both my wife and my job. While there has been so much uncertainty, and many adjustments, we have enjoyed not running from sports, to ACT and SAT prep and everything in between. We have gotten to enjoy a lot of good family time, family walks, movies, and bike rides. It has been a pleasure to see my daughters being real grown up kids even at 15 and 17. They take the dog for a walk, and help out a lot!
If you had 24 hours with NO responsibility to the Westport PD, what would you do? Who doesn’t want to know what Foti does in his spare time?=) Ooh- that is tough! Staying active is important to me – I play tennis everyday at sunrise at 615am with a group of guys, and this keeps me sane. If I could go anywhere, I’d probably go back to Greece; my family and I were supposed to go away for two weeks to Greece this summer to island hop!
You have played such a remarkable role in this town and community with such a respected voice. How do you keep doing It all? I think life is all about surrounding yourself with really good people. Nothing would have gotten accomplished these past months – and weeks – without my incredible team. Sam is my right hand man, and having a boss like Mr. Marpe – who is at the highest level of the town but gives the people who help run the town independence benefits everyone tremendously. I also am so grateful for the amazing support from my wife and kids. The combination of these relationships has undoubtedly enabled me to be the person I am today. These moments are the ones that define us, and if this time showed us anything, it’s that Westport can get through anything together.