WEBSTER – Longstanding turmoil in the police department here persists, an investigator says in a recent report.
The investigator said someone in the department, or close to it, fabricated an anonymous email to launch a probe of a patrolman and his supervisors.
Earlier this year, Selectman Robert J. Miller forwarded the email to Town Administrator Douglas C. Willardson. In the message, the writer claimed to have witnessed Officer Patrick R. Perry using excessive force against a member of the minority community on Whitcomb Street. He or she also said they had information that the incident was being covered up.
The writer stated he knew Officer Perry was a training officer and suggested the incident had been racially motivated. The writer also said Deputy Chief Michael D. Shaw, at the time a lieutenant, and Police Chief Timothy J. Bent, covered up the incident.
The email prompted the town to commission an independent internal affairs investigation by Arthur A. Parker Jr., a retired Carver police chief, and Robert J. Melia, a retired state police detective lieutenant.
The investigators have since concluded that allegations against Officer Perry, Deputy Chief Shaw and Chief Bent are unfounded.
At the same time, investigators said unrelated violations of department rules were committed by three other officers, and the review points to a political divide in the department.
The email, the investigators said, was likely a guise to have a probe conducted, and thereby place blame on Officer Perry, Deputy Chief Shaw and Chief Bent, in an attempt to possibly further other officers’ careers.
Officer Perry ranks first for a potential promotion to sergeant in the Civil Service process but could be bypassed for cause.
The investigation said Officers Robert Ela and Aaron Suss violated department rules by copying a dash-cam video recording of the incident in question onto their cellphones.
The town administrator said this offense is similar to an officer making a photocopy of a police report, which is against department rules.
Officers Ela and Suss and Sgt. Thomas Ralph Sr., were among a group of officers who reviewed the dash-cam video and expressed concern about Officer Perry.
During the investigation, Sgt. Ralph allegedly admitted to investigators he discussed the email with Mr. Miller and another selectman, Mark G. Dowgiewicz. The investigators said Sgt. Ralph spoke to the selectmen about internal "scuttlebutt" that the incident was being "covered up." But it is against the rules to discuss police matters with civilians without the chief's approval, or share official police business with civilians.
Sgt. Ralph was found to be in violation of these regulations, the report said.
The email concerned an incident on Whitcomb Street just before 3 p.m. on Dec. 2. The writer said he or she allegedly saw Officer Perry kick a black man in the back, while rookie Patrolman Timothy Dufresne looked on.
The man in question is Hispanic, not black, the report said.
The emailer went on to allege that Officer Dufresne reported the incident to then-Lt. Shaw and Chief Bent. The writer said Deputy Chief Shaw and Chief Bent told Officer Dufresne to “mind his business,” and they “laughed” at the dash-cam video.
Deputy Chief Shaw allegedly commended Officer Perry for doing “a great job kicking the (blank) out of that guy,” the writer claimed. Deputy Chief Shaw denied making the statements, and had in fact investigated Officer Perry's use of force, concluding he hadn't violated department rules, the investigation said.
Chief Bent said he hadn't seen the video nor had he talked to Officer Dufresne about the incident.
At the time of the incident, the officers were responding to what was described as a possible home invasion on Whitcomb Street. A woman called 911 to report she had been attacked in her home by a man in dark clothes. The actual suspect was never found.
Officers Perry and Dufresne observed a Hispanic man, identified in a separate police report as Heriberto Ortiz-Rodriguez, on Whitcomb Street. The report said the man was running but appears to be walking on video footage provided by the town.
Officer Perry, according to the internal affairs report, carefully drove the wrong way down Whitcomb Street in pursuit of Mr. Ortiz-Rodriguez. The officer drew his firearm and yelled for the man to get on the ground and show his hands.
Mr. Ortiz-Rodriguez went to his knees but did not lie on the ground, the report said.
Officer Perry moved closer, placed his foot in the center of the man’s shoulder blades and pushed him to the ground with his foot, the report said.
According to the report, Mr. Ortiz-Rodriguez was eventually viewed by the victim and said he wasn't the man who assaulted her. Mr. Ortiz-Rodriguez was allowed to leave, with a directive to obey officers' commands in the future.
When the independent investigators interviewed Mr. Ortiz-Rodriguez in March, he said he had been treated fairly by the officers and was OK with what happened, the report said.
Officer Dufresne told investigators that Officer Perry’s contact with the suspect was a “push which caused no harm.” He said Officer Perry did not violate the department’s use of force policy.
Meanwhile, Officer Dufresne told the investigators the email was “grossly inaccurate.” He said he was never told by Chief Bent to mind his business, nor had he filed a complaint with a supervisor.
Officer Dufresne suggested the email was fabricated by a member of the police department for political reasons, the investigators said.
Sgt. Ralph was mentioned prominently in the report. Sgt. Ralph was demoted from deputy chief to patrolman after a 2003 special investigation by a retired judge was begun principally to review the actions of a former police chief. The former judge, Robert Barton, recommended the demotion.
In the internal affairs report, Sgt. Ralph told the investigators he is a lawyer and the elected town moderator.
The investigator said police rules prohibit officers from practicing law, and police are to take a nonpaid leave of absence from the department when seeking a nonpartisan salaried office.
But neither matter was pursued in the past because, Sgt. Ralph opted not to accept the $250-per-year salary for his role as moderator, and the chief previously told Sgt. Ralph he didn’t mind him working as a lawyer on civil cases only, the report said.
The investigator said Sgt. Ralph has nonetheless violated these workplace rules.
Meanwhile, in an attempt to identify the identity of the email writer the investigators asked Mr. Miller, the selectman, to consent to a forensic review of his computer. Mr. Miller originally agreed but later reneged, the investigators said.
Mr. Miller told the Telegram & Gazette he didn’t want to part with the computer because he uses it for work, and it’s the only computer he owns.
The investigator concluded that it should be noted that going back to the pre-Barton Report years, “politics has soaked through the department like a poison.” This atmosphere has continued, the investigators said.
Chief Bent said in an interview the town has yet to decide how it will proceed on the investigation’s findings. He said he's still deliberating with the town administrator and counsel.
“Obviously the investigator’s conclusions are concerning," Chief Bent said. "These are the things I’ll be taking a look at going forward. I’m taking a look at the internal investigation in the whole, the conclusions, and what they turned up. Going forward, I just need some more time to put this altogether,” he said.
The chief said he concurs with the investigator’s findings on the email being an inside job." He said the email contained "too many facts the average citizen wouldn’t know." He said he found "the whole thing to be really sloppy."
Chief Bent said he agrees with the investigation's comments about politics in the department.
Officer Perry did not respond to a voice message seeking comment about the report. Officer Ela said he had no comment. Officer Suss and Sgt. Ralph also declined comment, stating they hadn’t yet been given copies of the report.
Mr. Willardson, the administrator, said the investigation would be handled through the "standard methods" within the police department.