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Select Board completes HPD Chief Bennett’s midyear review, offers goals for improvement

by | Apr 6, 2024 | Featured: News, News

The Select Board on Friday night completed its review of Hopkinton Police Department Chief Joseph Bennett, pointing out recent accomplishments and areas for improvement.

This three-hour meeting came less than 24 hours after Bennett and the HPD responded to an incident where a vehicle struck a 26-year-old woman on Hayden Rowe Street. The victim was transported to a local hospital with life-threatening injuries.

The mood of the meeting was more subdued and conciliatory than the previous two sessions in which Bennett’s performance was reviewed, perhaps influenced by the gravity of Thursday night’s incident. Previously, Bennett’s performance was slammed by Select Board chair Muriel Kramer, who questioned why it has taken him until recently to post two critical leadership positions in the department for hire. At Tuesday night’s meeting, Bennett accused Kramer of having a personal vendetta against him after he sought the termination of former Sgt. Tim Brennan for violating departmental policies. This decision angered some town members who have demanded Brennan’s reinstatement and petitioned for a recall election for all five Select Board members.

This meeting also was different in that Town Manager Norman Khumalo stepped in at the start to direct the conversation. He encouraged board members to stick to the chief’s three goals and eight other performance indicators in his contract. He also noted the town’s goal of “passionate government service” and asked how Bennett exemplified this in his work.

Khumalo added that input was sought from all Select Board members prior to Friday’s meeting regarding their perspectives on Bennett’s achievements and shortcomings. It was directed to the Human Resources Department and included a summary with some context from previous meetings.

Said Khumalo: “What is in front of the board is a compilation of a summary and not a collation of the individual words and statements from all parties identified.”

Recent strengths highlighted

New Human Resources Director Jessica Lewerenz, who sat with Bennett before the board, went through the summary points. She pointed to the creation of a social media team and increased officer engagement at community events as an area where the chief made significant progress. Select Board member Amy Ritterbusch noted that she has observed more active engagement by the HPD on social media but felt that posts should be more frequent and consistent.

A more recent achievement was the addition of several new hires to the force, although this process was slow to start. Once the onboarding process is complete in a couple of months, Lewerenz said the department will have 27 out of 29 positions filled. Training opportunities were called “impressive.”

Member Irfan Nasrullah suggested that Bennett talk with other police chiefs regarding their recruitment efforts to get new ideas. Bennett noted that recruitment is much harder now statewide given smaller candidate pools, but he is willing to consult with colleagues about this and other topics.

Despite that challenge, Bennett said the department has been successful when current officers recruit candidates.

HPD Chief Joseph Bennett

Police Chief Joseph Bennett answers questions from the Select Board during Friday’s midyear performance review. PHOTO/JOHN CARDILLO

Vice chair Shahidul Mannan pointed to the early release hangout the police sponsored in response to youth activity downtown after school as a success.

Kramer pointed to Thursday night’s handling of the vehicular incident as a success for both the police and fire departments. Bennett said that, in addition to interviewing witnesses at the scene, he spoke with every member of the department involved. Additional peer support will be offered to employees who wish to receive it.

Said Bennett: “We have a core culture of checking in with each other.”

A goal of his is to better document officer feedback, which can be challenging when trying to offer support. He also said he would focus on “stay interviews” to learn more about why officers enjoy their jobs and how to retain them. Also, he is looking into an early intervention software program that can help target officers who may need support.

Areas for improvement

While onboarding new officers was seen as a strength, members said the focus now should be on officer retention and improving morale. The department’s morale declined during the investigations into the conduct of Brennan and former Deputy Chief John “Jay” Porter, who has pleaded not guilty to three counts of child rape his accuser said occurred during his stint as a school resource officer two decades ago. While Bennett and sergeants stepped up to fill multiple roles, Kramer pointed out that the sergeants told her they felt overworked and under compensated.

Lewerenz noted that the department has been developing a succession plan. Team development is in progress.

Member Mary Jo LaFreniere stressed that promotions need to be based on merit rather than length of service. Personality and knowledge need to be incorporated in these decisions.

Bennett added that the new officers have been bonding with one another and have not been afraid to seek advice from their colleagues.

Public relations and communication “need further development,” Lewerenz said, a comment echoed by all five members. Kramer suggested regular updates from Bennett to the Select Board.

One past problem that was raised was that if goals were not met, Select Board members were not apprised of the reasons why beforehand. This led to communication breakdowns.

Said Bennett: “Understood and agreed.”

Ritterbusch noted that communication can be a “huge challenge” for the police and public officials because Open Meeting Law constrains what information can be shared with the public.

Bennett did not accomplish the goals of instituting officer body camera use, drug and alcohol testing, and completing the accreditation process. Also, the ProPhoenix public safety software system has not been fully implemented. While members conceded the challenges the department has faced, these areas need to be tackled over the next six months.

Kramer repeatedly said she was “disappointed by the lack of action” by Bennett on several initiatives.

After members reflected on different criteria, Khumalo provided a summary of what he heard to ensure everyone was on the same page regarding the feedback.

“The last two years were very difficult years for all of us,” said Khumalo. “The chief had to deal with those challenges. As a department head, he did report to the board and the public that he had to make some administrative decisions. And some of those decisions have resulted in the delays that have been recounted.”

By the end of the meeting, a more collaborative spirit had emerged. Bennett expressed willingness to work on areas where he previously fell short. In turn, Select Board members will analyze the goals for the next six months and work with Bennett on mutual prioritization. The Human Resources Department will provide assistance as well.

Added Nasrullah: “I think we owe the chief a deliverable on our priorities.”

“I just want to say that, going through this process, I have a better understanding of the complex and complicated job that you do,” LaFreniere said to Bennett.

1 Comment

  1. Copy editor

    Correction: I think you mean Bennett in this statement:

    “ Khumalo added that input was sought from all Select Board members prior to Friday’s meeting regarding their their perspectives on Brennan’s achievements and shortcomings”

    Reply

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