The police hiring controversy dominated much of Tuesday’s Select Board meeting, as members held a discussion with Chief Joseph Bennett about the department’s policy and how board members could become more involved.
The controversy started at the Sept. 5 meeting, when members voted 4-1 to delay the promotion request for two Hopkinton Police Department officers to the rank of sergeant.
During the public forum portion of Tuesday’s meeting, Officer Nick Walker, representing the police union, noted the department’s staffing issues and accused the board of making the situation worse.
“Since December of 2020, the Hopkinton Police Department has lost 17 members,” Walker said. “Only one of those officers retired. Fourteen of them are active law enforcement officers in other agencies to this day. They chose to leave this agency to go to different departments. This is what led to our contract being more competitive, but we are still struggling to recruit due to a lack of support from town management.”
Walker said Bennett had planned to bring forward a new officer candidate at Tuesday’s meeting, but “after seeing the stress our department is under, this officer chose to withdraw from the hiring process and has already been hired by another local agency.” He also claimed the Select Board has violated the town charter by interfering with the day-to-day operations of the department.
“To the residents of Hopkinton, please listen to us,” Walker said. “The Hopkinton Police Department is struggling right now. We have nine vacancies in a 29-officer department. We cannot fill these positions under these conditions. Our officers are working short-staffed and often unsupervised. We are telling you that there are fewer officers protecting you and your family than there should be on every shift, and town management is making it harder than ever to recruit.”
Added Walker: “While we welcome transparency and oversight, it should be done in conjunction with the Police Department and the chief of police. The town should be working with us, not against us.”
When the board began its discussion about the situation later in the meeting, chair Muriel Kramer first clarified that the Select Board is “actually the hiring and promoting authority.” While she did not take issue with the HPD’s internal process, she noted that there has never been a process that she knew of where “we really get involved, review the candidates, interact with all the materials and understand really how the promotions fit in the departmental structure and growth,” which she said would be typical for a hiring authority.
Board member Irfan Nasrullah said that because there is professional staff handling the process, “I don’t think I need to be reviewing personnel files and determining who gets promoted and who doesn’t. I think we leave that up to our professional staff. But it would be helpful to understand what they go through.”
Member Amy Ritterbusch noted that for other town hiring situations, Human Resources staff “comes and explains the whole interview process to us. I think that’s helpful.”
Member Shahidul Mannan agreed that he would like to know more about the process.
“It would be good to have a little bit better understanding as [Bennett presents] promotions maybe before the meeting or during the meeting from HR and the chief and others involved, more about the process a little bit, more about the considerations, and how the selection was done, among others,” he said. “And I think that’s just due diligence that I would expect on all promotions and hiring. … I think the town and the residents would appreciate it, and the police force would appreciate it because that gives them the credit that’s due through the promotion and the badges and I would say satisfaction and honor of the promotion as well.”
Member Mary Jo LaFreniere — who was the lone dissenting vote to delay the promotions — said that it felt like the board was “singling out a department, and it really bothers me.”
Kramer explained that the difference is that the Select Board is the hiring authority for the police, while in other cases the town manager is the hiring authority and the Select Board only votes to approve or oppose that decision.
Kramer said one of her first meetings during her current stint on the Select Board included the promotion of Jay Porter to deputy chief. Porter last year was suspended by the department and eventually charged with two counts of child rape dating back to when he served as a school resource officer in town. He has pleaded not guilty.
“I had questions, or wished I felt comfortable bringing questions; I had some reservations about that decision,” Kramer said of Porter’s promotion. “Where is the right time and the right place to have a candid conversation if you have reason to have questions about a promotion? How do we do that?”
Mannan said the recent challenges have put the town in an awkward position, and it’s important to learn from them.
“That also tells us that we have a fiduciary duty from the town representative perspective that maybe we do the due diligence in a little more transparent way than before, only because of these challenging experiences and times,” he said. “And again, not to reflect on anything, it’s more to embolden our Police Department, ourselves, and make sure everyone feels more comfortable that we have taken some learning and moved toward a more confident and more robust way.”
Added Mannan: “I think we need to change the optics or the perspective a little bit thinking that we are here to criticize or single out. That’s not the goal at all. The overall intent — my intent and I think everyone’s I’m hearing — is to promote, motivate and support our Police Department.”
LaFreniere said any delay in the hiring or promotional process makes the problem worse for the HPD.
“Right now we are down [a lot of officers], and we are down officers as we go up in rank, a lot,” she said. “This man, our chief, needs help. And by us just taking our time, saying, ‘Oh, let’s wait for this, let’s do that …’ We have to make decisions, and we have to make decisions that are going to help him and help him now. But, ‘Let’s wait until we get this’ — I mean, we could have a report in a month, but we could have it in a year-and-a-half. And if we’re not going to promote anybody or hire anybody in that time, we’re not helping them. I just feel like if we are going to do something like this, then we’re going to do it right now, and move. … We can’t drag this thing out. We need a lot of police officers on the ground and we need to promote a lot of people to give them some authority.”
Kramer stressed that she wanted the Select Board to be able to be more aware of and perhaps directly involved in the hiring/promotional process “meaningfully, before it’s just a vote on the promotion.”
Bennett noted that the department’s process is “robust” and involves numerous people/panels, adhering to department policy as well as the collective bargaining agreement with the union. Any changes to the individuals involved in the interview process could require negotiations with the union, he said.
Said Kramer: “I think we need a process whereby the Select Board of today or the Select Board of the future has an opportunity to ask questions about a promotion or about a hiring before the whole family is in front of us. That’s my whole point, in case there are times when we have concerns about a particular decision. And that’s fair play.”