Military and Police

Salem NH Police Bump Heads with Town Leaders, Chief Goes Off Grid Before Resigning

Recently, I wrote about how politics can bog down a police department and its personnel when elected officials having zero law enforcement experience deflate (defund) police pensions, resulting in retention woes and exodus of its new and/or seasoned talent. Today, we analyze a cop shop in New Hampshire whose leadership has been grappling with the town selectmen and other figureheads. For a spell, Salem, New Hampshire police Chief Paul Donovan was mysteriously absent from his office in police HQ, presumably off-the-grid while a highly critical audit produced by a hired consultant blackened the eyes of the police agency and its personnel. The outside-source findings colored the  Salem Police Department as a largely autonomous force with a knack for “intimidating” folks on a regular basis, a practice of double-dipping, and possessed of an anemic interest in policing its own.

Several town managers, human resources directors and selectmen have come and gone, yet all agree their police department didn’t quite exude the open-door policy other agencies have.

According to the audit conducted by Kroll Inc., the Salem PD has been painted as a closed society basically discounting those who are not law enforcement officers. leaving the impression elected ones and members of the police force have not been playing nice.

Per the Town of Salem website, “The focus of the audit was to review policies, practices, and procedures in the areas of Time and Attendance [of Salem police officers] and Internal Affairs complaint investigations.” In some varying material I read, it appears the auditors may have unearthed what sounds like relatively damning misconduct by town cops and poor relations with constituents who may have had a beef with police.

Post-audit decisions have been made, one of which is for the town to contract with Municipal Resources Inc. to help find/hire a “civilian police administrator to assist the Salem Police Department” with growing pains.

Hence the likely reason Chief Donovan, who served the Salem PD as police chief since 2001, took a sabbatical. He recently returned to tender his resignation (which I found online), acknowledging “differences” between him and the town’s elected officials have culminated in a separation. “The Town and I have agreed to resolve our differences, and move forward,” Chief Donovan wrote. The tempo is that the chief was happy with his accomplishments throughout his tenure as Salem’s police chief, commanding a cadre of cops he loved and for whom he held a deep sense of pride. But, as we often see, times change and some folks do not jibe. Or, changes desired by some may not go over well with others. Sometimes applicable, sometimes not.

The materials I found largely suggests the climate in Salem is peachy whereby the citizenry’s adoration for its police officers was glowing. One resident, John Gordon, wrote “Chief Donovan and all of SPD are class acts. Shame they’re being treated so shabbily.” I’ve witnessed politicians go after a particular cop for presumably personal reasons like, say, “He stopped my son for speeding when he wasn’t.” I have also gleaned how elected officials seem to want to exert their political posture over authority figures they may have at one time had a hand in hiring. Like a police chief who seems to be differing with a civilian boss’s opinion about police policy or some operational construct, clashes are born. Again, warranted or not, these hiccups arise.

Although his resignation letter states his tenure ends effective December 31, 2018, rumblings in Salem, NH entail Chief Donovan not only took time away but that he completely scrubbed his office before he did so, back in early November. He cleaned out his desk/office and went silent, until he resurfaced with resignation letter in hand on December 5. Writing on the wall? It happens.

What I have found to be one of the greatest litmus tests to gauge police efficacy is to poll the public. With that, all but one of the Salem residents who took the time to weigh in and speak on the departure of their beloved police chief pointed grievance toward the town manager and his ilk; town-folk seem to support their police personnel. In reply to one curious Salem resident who inquired about Chief Donovan’s absence since November, another answered this way: “…why don’t you ask your town manager! Also ask him how much of your money he has spent to wage a personal battle against the SPD!” With this, the comment above, and others just like them, it indeed appears wrangling figureheads are involved in some not-so-discreet power-swinging in Salem, particularly with its law enforcement arm contending layers of political might…and a hired hand from outside the playing-field to put it all in writing.

Digging In

The audit we mentioned earlier cast a pall over Salem’s police entity, citing “significant tension between the Salem PD’s administration and the town’s administration” and also the analyzed police misconduct complaints which “were being handled as informal inquiries, often leading to a limited investigative process that violates a citizen’s due process.” It also assessed department accounting discrepancies regarding time-keeping and compensation with specific regard to private-hire extra-duty jobs performed by town cops. The flags indicated via forensic accountants claim Salem cops had their hands in two cookie jars at the same time. The audit portends Salem police officers were working an extra-duty job while also receiving compensation from some regular-duty responsibility. (Taking paid vacation time while increasing economy by working privately in some security capacity at a business may have been the hiccup found by auditors; not illegal but it does lend an air of fishiness.)

The Kroll audit examined Salem PD’s 79 personnel, 63 of whom are sworn law enforcement officers. Auditors focused on what was described as “a high turnover rate” in recent years, citing “18 line of duty related disability retirements.” For a department of 63 sworn cops, that does appear to be thought-provoking. Training comes to my mind, whether it be lack thereof or insufficient qualifications somehow signed off, culminating in injured cops who can no longer serve to optimum capacity.

As we have covered above, the audit also mentioned “reports to the town manager that there appeared to be several instances of individuals who were on vacation or engaged in personal matters while they were on the payroll records as being paid for working their regular shifts.” As written, that implies “double-dipping.” Social media was the reported tip-off whereby “postings showed employees outside of the country or state while payroll records showed they received their regular pay.” I assume “regular pay” means not vacation pay or any other contractual allowances.

According to the Town of Salem’s employee policy, the police chief is responsible for overseeing all police employees’ time sheets and accounting integrity. Ultimately, Kroll’s findings equated to discovery of the police department’s shoddy bookkeeping for which auditors rendered recommendations to get their act together.

As to the allegation of “police misconduct” complaints taken lightly and/or swept under the rug, Kroll did a separate report distinctly addressing that premise. Kroll auditors recognized “A citizen has the right to submit a complaint about alleged improper conduct by its police personnel, and it is essential that the complaint be thoroughly investigated” and that the department “must take appropriate action to address the issue” if a complaint is sustained. Fairly, Kroll acknowledged vindictiveness among some members of society, saying “complaints may be lodged against officers merely as retribution for enforcement actions they may have taken, and it is just as important for these investigative measures to disprove a false complaint as it is to prove and sustain a valid one.” With that said, what did they find regarding supposed breakdown of internal investigations?

Based on allegations that Salem PD Internal Affairs (IA) was perceived as “unfair and incomplete” and that the agency was reportedly prone to “discourage citizens from making formal complaints” then discounting them if rendered officially by complainants, Kroll lead auditor, a former Boston Police superintendent, conducted tons of interviews of complainants feeling slighted by Salem police officers. Moreover, an alleged former Salem PD employee claimed the disregarded citizens’ complaints is a valid concern, attesting to first-hand knowledge of such a practice (or, per the assertions, malpractice).

Kroll found that Salem PD IA files were incomplete and lacking inclusions such as the fundamental practice that an accused officer be alerted of such a complaint (not to say he/she was not, but it deviated from protocol which required official notice of circumstances recorded on forms designated for the purpose of due process). This particular reference is otherwise known as the Garrity Rights clause and pertinent acknowledgements made by police officers. Garrity v. New Jersey was the precedent-setting case which went all the way to the United States Supreme Court which overturned the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling. In essence, much like Miranda Rights afforded citizens, law enforcement officers are accorded Garrity Rights which means they also “have the constitutional right not to be compelled by the government to incriminate themselves” during any internal proceedings of alleged wrongdoing. In a nutshell: Salem PD seemingly failed to document its own officers’ deserved protections permitted by Garrity Rights.

Another discovery Kroll auditors found was that much of the Salem PD internal affairs detectives had zero formal training in such unique investigations (policing the police). My agency (and every other one I know of) required Internal Affairs Investigations instruction at a bona fide police academy or law enforcement agency offering such state-accredited coursework. Indeed, basic investigative techniques are derived from any police academy, but there are nuances endemic to law enforcement investigating itself (accused colleagues) which, upon successful completion of specific course materials, declares competency. This thickens a cop’s personnel jacket and lends well to promotional opportunities with the agency or down the road.

Kroll also found inconsistent case files; that is to say jackets without adequate documentation or status of case events. That would appear to be carelessness in any police investigative file, no matter the type. That could also lend to the appearance that an agency’s personnel and/or leadership are insensitive to and unconcerned with allegations made against its cop(s). Kroll categorized it as a “disconnect between the department’s written policies and the practice of those tasked with receiving and investigating complaints,” and basically “not in keeping with law enforcement best practices.” However, Kroll did intend to bold-print where the department’s IA investigations were in full compliance with law enforcement best practices. There were indicators that the Salem PD ignored its own police union rules/protections whereas in other internal cases it abided well. In summation, it seemed the Salem cops may have waffled from time to time, certainly unacceptable in any police agency, especially when written guidelines are there to follow.

Auditors also felt some command staff and IA detectives were allowing personal emotions to cloud objective reasoning thus prejudging certain citizen complaints and downplaying any pursuant investigatory procedures. Kroll categorized this as “contempt toward complainants.”

At the outset, Kroll auditors recommended rewriting “restrictive language” in police department policies; developing some new policies altogether; revamping IA protocols; providing state-sanctioned IA training; retaining records longer; bifurcating the deputy police chief from duties creating conflict of interest (in charge of IA while also representing police union members); and coming into compliance with their own agency policies regarding allegations of officer misconduct.

Reacting to audit findings, Salem Town Manager Chris Dillon (elected to office August 2017), working with the town’s five Board of Selectmen, hired former Andover police Chief Brian Patullo as the new civilian administrator “until most issues are addressed.” Whether they go outside or not, they may consider swearing in Mr. Patullo as the new Salem police chief.

Pursuant to the Kroll report(s), it sounds like Salem certainly has some issues to address. It is not at all uncommon for law enforcement agencies to experience growing pains, changes in the command structure, a cleansing of sorts, whereby those who remain learn from the journey as others move on to other pasture.

Even after Chief Donovan publicly stated he did not agree with the Kroll assessments, he nonetheless declared his devotion to the Town of Salem, its police force and its citizenry, by dedicating his remaining days to effect change while also serving to mold his successor until his retirement in 2021. Well, that too was apparently not in the cards, having tendered his resignation effective December 31 of this year. Differences or not, he clearly agreed it was no longer the cop shop for him.

As I review some of the material factored in this article, I learn that the FBI has taken an interest in the Salem police for a “controversial arrest” made back in December 2017. Did the Kroll report influence such interest regarding an incident which occurred one year ago? Who knows.

Police departments endure much these days; some deservedly, others unwittingly. In both cases, there are always lessons to be learned, especially for those amenable to adaptation.

A relatively common impetus for professionalizing law enforcement agencies and compelling them to become more progressive in policing communities in America is either state- and/or national-level accreditation bodies. My agency endured a total revision under the tutelage of the Commission for Florida Law Enforcement Association (CFA) before seeking the higher honor conferred by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), successfully meeting muster in ultra-professional policing standards and applications. I was a part of that big bear, and it was worth every cent and second we invested to get gold-starred.

Salem PD shows no indication of having achieved CALEA accreditation nor are they listed in their state-level conferring authority known as the Northern New England Police Accreditation Coalition (NNEPAC). If either or both of these law enforcement accreditation bodies indoctrinating “law enforcement best practices” were partnered with the Salem PD, Chief Donovan would have his eye on the 2021 retirement prize, Kroll auditors would have one less paying client, Salem taxpayers would be richer by whatever Kroll’s price-tag was, and I wouldn’t be writing about a police agency’s otherwise avoidable woes.

It is never too late to acquire a gold star…

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Stephen Owsinski

Stephen Owsinski is an OpsLens Content Manager and Contributor. Owsinski is a retired law enforcement officer whose career included assignments in the Uniformed Patrol Division and Field Training Officer (FTO) unit. He is currently a researcher and writer. Follow Stephen on Twitter @uniformblue.

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