"The Tisbury Police Department environment is dysfunctional, at best, with continual tension between police officers and management," declares a new report made public at the Feb. 27 meeting of the Tisbury board of selectmen. The 22-page report is the product of a four-month study commissioned by selectmen and undertaken by seasonal Island resident Robert Wasserman of the consulting firm PSComm LLC.
The selectmen heard a reading of the report by Mr. Wasserman Tuesday evening, and immediately voted to begin the process of implementing the consultant's recommendations for addressing the problems inside the department.
"This report is to try and begin to put our police department in a positive direction," said selectman Tristan Israel. "My expectation is to try and make an effort to make this work."
After interviewing police, town officials and citizens, and reviewing both newspaper articles and internal police department correspondence, Mr. Wasserman and his study team attributed the department's problems to long-festering issues of poor communication and tension between management and employees.
The report notes that members of the Tisbury Police Department have tried to foster a public campaign for the dismissal of chief of police John McCarthy, but concludes: "Simply firing the chief of police . . .will not solve the situation."
Instead, the study team calls for funding the new position of lieutenant and hiring a person from outside the department to fill that role. The report calls for hiring an outside "monitor" or ombudsman to supervise a one-year process of addressing the disputes inside the department. The report calls for the creation of a police advisory committee, a group of citizens who will meet with the chief monthly to give community feedback about policing strategy and issues. The report also calls for the development of an objective evaluation tool for reviewing the performance of police department staff.
All these measures are designed to break a cycle of polarization which, according to the PSComm report, has left the Tisbury Police Department deeply divided. Notes the report: "Individuals in the department have been drawn to one of two ‘sides' in the disputes, with little to no middle ground."
The report reviews the case of former officer T.M. Silvia, with whom the town reached a $375,000 settlement after a fellow officer was fired for treating him in an abusive and racially discriminatory fashion. The report concludes that the town's action against the offending officer could have been swifter, but rejects the charge of racism against Chief McCarthy.
"The issues in the Tisbury Police Department have been germinating for years," notes the PSComm report. The report found that when disgruntled members of the police department began going directly to a previous board of selectmen with their complaints, "a conduit was established around the chief of police." Added the consultants: "These actions by the board of selectmen appear to have substantially contributed to the tension between management and officers; some officers felt empowered to challenge any management directive and management felt angry at being left out of the discussions."
One issue of conflict among town leaders identified by the consultants is the question of how new police officers should be selected. "There have been strong commitments among some members of the board that only local persons should be hired as police officers, while at other times there have been members of the board who have pressed to hire the most qualified candidate."
This observation speaks directly to the case of T.M. Silvia, a local candidate who was hired by the selectmen after having been passed over as underqualified by an appointed search committee. Mention of the T.M. Silvia case appears repeatedly in the PSComm report, although the study team declares in its findings: "[The] T.M. Silvia case intensified the tensions, but did not cause them, nor are the current tensions solely a result of issues surfacing in that case. Prior boards of selectmen did little to resolve tensions, and from some perspectives, dramatically worsened them."
And the T.M. Silvia lawsuit and its eventual settlement by the town have taken their toll on internal department relations, the study team found. "It appears that some officers have been insubordinate, in a manner that would result in discipline, at least, or discharge, at most. In these cases, there has been no discipline, probably because officers have figured out that threatening litigation (or charging intimidation) can focus attention away from their misbehavior."
(Two members of the Tisbury police force currently have complaints pending before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Frank Williams, the police union steward, claims that he was harassed and retaliated against by Chief McCarthy. Officer Michael Gately claims that the chief threatened him. Officer Williams complains that he was assaulted by the chief in October of 1999; Officer Gately alleges that his suspensions for abuse of department sick time policies were retaliatory.)
The study report notes that policing the town of Tisbury is not a high-stress task, and finds that, in fact, some members of the police force might have too much time on their hands. "Little attention is paid to the quality of police service provided to the town of Tisbury," states the report, "but lots of attention is paid to the tension between employees and management."
Elsewhere, the consultants observe: "Policing Tisbury is neither complex nor rigorous. Officers have substantial time to engage in activities of their own priorities. Some officers are observed playing computer games in the station waiting for their shift to end. Other officers have traditionally conducted personal business on on-duty time."
The study team found problems in communication on both sides of the department's internal divide: "The chief of police takes a strong, absolute view of perceived infractions of rules, resulting in a widespread perception that he is out to ‘get the employees' for infractions. Likewise, some employees act as if their primary objective is to embarrass management and get them replaced."
Concluding their review of the problems inside the Tisbury police force, the study team writes: "The most critical point to emphasize is that the behavior patterns in the department must change. . . . Management must become more sophisticated in dealing with employees. . . . Employees must adhere to basic standards of performance, decorum and respectfulness."
In a conversation with the Gazette this week, Robert Wasserman tried to put the problems of the Tisbury police force in perspective.
Numerous departments in Massachusetts have similar problems, he said, though few as small as Tisbury's force have the same amount of tension, and seldom has he seen the problems become such a public concern.
Although tensions were high and parties remained divided, he said, he takes hope from the fact that no one is pleased with the current situation.
"Everybody in the department wants to see something happen," Mr. Wasserman said. "If nothing's done, the situation will continue to deteriorate, and that's very unfortunate."