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Cohanzie fire chief resigns over controversial social media posts

Waterford — The chief of the Cohanzie Fire Company 5 in Waterford has resigned from his position after controversial posts on Facebook resulted in backlash from community members.

Todd Branche, a volunteer chief with the company, resigned on Sunday effective immediately due to comments he made on the Waterford Community Open Forum on Facebook, according to Cohanzie Deputy Chief John Mariano.

On Sunday morning, Branche responded to a photo posted in the Facebook forum by Brian Johnson of the Christopher Columbus statue in New London being covered in red paint and a New London police patrol car that was spray painted by protesters. Branche commented, "Many of 'those people' can't even spell George Floyd....but they won't miss an opportunity..."

After many responded, asking Branche what he meant by "those people," the chief commented again, saying, "Yes, those people. The people who rather than protest and address the real issues chose to destroy public property. This is not about whether or not you support Columbus this is about protesting racism and you don't address that with spray paint. You want the statue gone you protest the statue you go to city hall you call the media. Those people, the people who just want to cause chaos are Those People. Look at the photos in The Day many of Those People I speak of are white," Branche wrote.

The original post, by Johnson, used similar language.

"My point is that this is in the next town over and SOME of these people want to destroy. I understand there may be plans for gathering by these people next week. Be vigilant," Johnson wrote.

The town accepted Branche's resignation, according to the deputy chief and first selectman Rob Brule, who both issued statements on Sunday.

The Cohanzie Fire Co. on its Facebook page posted a statement by Mariano in which he said, "The sentiments expressed by Mr. Branche do not in any ways reflect the values or views of the Cohanzie Fire Co. #5 and as such Mr. Branche no longer leads or represents the Cohanzie Fire Co. #5."

Mariano also said in the Facebook statement that trust between the department and the community is imperative.

"You put your trust in us, we put our trust in each other," Mariano said Sunday. "When a trust is egregiously violated through a member's actions, we must quickly address these actions as we have today in immediately removing our Chief from his post."

Before that statement was posted on Sunday, another post was made on the Cohanzie Fire Co. Facebook page that has since been removed.

The post defended Branche's remarks. It included several of the same statements that Branche made in comments on Johnson's post from his private Facebook account.

"The statement made earlier from Chief Branche referencing "Those People" is out of context. The people being referenced by Chief Branche are those who rather than protest and address the real issues chose to destroy public property," the post said. "This is not about whether or not you support Columbus this is about protesting racism and you don't address that with spray paint. You want the statue gone you protest the statue you go to city hall you call the media. Those people, the people who just want to cause chaos are Those People. Go look at the photos in The Day today from the protest in New London yesterday, many of "Those People" are white. Race was not a factor in Chief Branche's statement, however destruction of property was."

It was not clear who made the post, who removed it, or when it was taken down.

Deputy Chief Mariano hung up the phone when contacted by The Day Monday night. Branche did not respond to requests for comment. 

In his statement Sunday, Brule called Branche's comments "insensitive, inappropriate and divisive."

On Monday, Brule said Branche's comment comes "at a time when each of us is doing all we can to understand."

He added "divisiveness is counterproductive to the changes we need to make as a community and will not be tolerated in Waterford."

Selectwoman Elizabeth Sabilia said she saw Branche's comments and shared them with Brule.

"I couldn't believe what I was reading," she said. "It was disgusting and it needed to be called out."

Sabilia said she found Branche's use of the words "those people" and accusations of "those people" not being able to spell inappropriate and unacceptable for a town fire official.

"It's absolutely unacceptable to have members of our community question whether they are going to get an appropriate response because of somebody's not only implicit bias, but explicit bias," Sabilia said.

Jean Jordan, president of the New London chapter of the NAACP, said that when she saw Branche's comments, she was concerned for the safety of black and brown residents who may need help from the Cohanzie Fire Co.

"How do I know that his rate of response to a black or brown person is going to be the same speed as a white person?" she asked.

Branche appears to have made several other controversial posts on his Facebook over the years.

In February of last year, he shared a photo of a black woman with the caption "liberals see racism where it doesn't exist, fabricate it when they can't find it and ignore it within their own ranks."

According to a screenshot posted to the Waterford Connecticut Open Forum, Branche also shared a post on his personal Facebook page that said "I'm proud to be white."

The former chief also made a post on his Facebook about alleged vehicle break-ins on Vauxhall Street Extension in Quaker Hill, saying that his vehicle had been rummaged through.

"These people are very lucky," he wrote. "It's very easy to end up with lead poisoning doing that kind of stuff."

“It was such a divisive comment at a time when we’re trying to listen and understand,” Brule said Monday. “It was wrong, it needed to be addressed immediately, I mean, this is the type of language that has put us in this position.”

Deputy Chief Mariano is serving as acting chief, according to Brule, who called Mariano “an incredible person and leader.” Cohanzie is an independent 501(c)(3) organization, which means the town does not run the department and does not appoint the officers.

Brule said Cohanzie “is an amazing firehouse with talented and civic-minded volunteers.”

“For them to come out and make the decision they made sent a loud message that we’re all on the same team here, this is unacceptable.”

Brule said he didn’t know who posted the department’s original Facebook post about the incident, but said it was posted before Branche resigned.

“There was a lot of agreement and solidarity in town that these comments are not going to be tolerated,” said Brule.

Johnson, who made the post that Branche commented on, said that he used the same language as Branche in his original post about the statue being vandalized and didn't have any malicious intent with his use of the words "these people."

Johnson said someone also asked him what he meant by his own use of "these people."

"It was almost like people were looking to be offended," he said.

He said he doesn't think Branche should have been fired for that comment alone.

"It's really bizarre to me, if he was fired as a result of saying that, it's unfortunate," he said, adding that he planned to talk to Brule about it.

Sten Spinella contributed to this report 

t.hartz@theday.com

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