Westport, Connecticut, Police Chief Fotios Koskinas was recently featured as one of CNN’s 12 “Champions for Change” for 2022 due to his department’s reforms to help officers respond to mental health calls and serve the community at large.
According to Koskinas, his department has introduced a voluntary registry for family members and friends of those with mental health problems to obtain individualized information that may help de-escalate encounters.
“A lot of people with special needs may not react very well to a police in uniform, but they may just react very well if a grandparent gets on the phone,” Koskinas explained.
The initiative, which was created with help from local organizations, is intended to help prevent fatal encounters between police and those with schizophrenia or autism, who may panic when approached by officers.
Koskinas said that dispatchers are automatically alerted by the computer if someone’s name or address is on the registry. Police can then access information such as contact information or ways to communicate with the person that can prevent situations from escalating.
The chief also said Westport police officers are trained for all sorts of situations, especially calls related to mental health crises and substance abuse issues.
“We prepare for storms. We prepare for an active shooter. We prepare for traffic accidents. We prepare for a hazardous material incidents,” Koskinas said, adding that it’s just as important to train for mental health crises.
The chief was proud of the work the department has done over the years to stay ahead of the curve.
“We started our body camera program in 2014. We were one of the first in Connecticut, if not the first, to wear body cameras. Fast forward to 2020 when everybody’s saying body cameras provide accountability. We, as the Westport Police Department, were able to say: ‘Well that’s great. Not only do we support it, but we’ve been doing it for six years.’”
The Westport Police Department also anticipated the dangers surrounding chokeholds by implementing strict regulations on the tactic.
In addition, the department has emphasized its role in the community by participating in “Dodge a Cop” dodgeball games with local teens. In the summer, officers play cornhole games with the kids to stay in touch with the community and foster positive relations with youth.
“It’s really good when the police officers see the kids and everybody knows each other by first name. It doesn’t have to always be ‘Officer,’” the chief explained. “We’ve had real lockdowns. These kids have had the comfort to go to the school resource officer … and say: ‘We have a relationship with the police, and I am concerned about this.’”
Koskinas, a Greek immigrant who spoke no English when his family moved to Westport when he was 11, knows how important it is to have a sense of belonging in a community.
“He looks at things differently,” said Westport First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker. “When he thinks about solutions, he always thinks about everybody winning. And I think that’s amazing in a police chief and in a leader.”
He’s also well-known in the community. Even young children know him as “Chief Foti.”
“He’s in the community, he’s everywhere all the time,” community activist Dan Woog said. “And he’s all in… little kids know him, they say ‘Foti!’ Who calls the police chief by his nickname?”