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Tensions flare during Select Board’s midyear review of HPD Chief Bennett’s performance

by | Apr 3, 2024 | Featured: News, News

The tension was palpable during Tuesday night’s Select Board midyear performance review of Hopkinton Police Chief Joseph Bennett, as Bennett accused chair Muriel Kramer of having a personal vendetta against him for the termination of former HPD Sgt. Tim Brennan.

The review came during the fourth hour of a nearly five-hour meeting. It was the second part of a review that began on Feb. 27. During her interview with Bennett at that meeting, Kramer tore apart his performance, questioning his leadership abilities. She also brought up a letter from the HPD’s sergeants that expressed a lack of confidence in Bennett’s capabilities and his inability to fill key department positions, including the deputy chief and lieutenant roles.

Bennett discusses his performance goals

Bennett told the board he had “no reference point” for a midyear review, as he said he had not completed one before. He said the three goals he had submitted to the board were achieved by the department between July 1 of last year and now.

“I’m glad to be here,” he said. “I’m glad to talk about my accomplishments and to solicit feedback on how I should achieve those goals.”

The goals Bennett presented were recruitment of new officers, the promotion and professional development of current officers, and improved community outreach via social media.

Bennett noted that officer recruitment “is extremely difficult,” not only for his department but across the state. He cited competition from neighboring towns for qualified candidates as well as the state police and federal agencies.

There has been a recent surge in hiring, with three candidates approved unanimously by the Select Board earlier in the evening as police academy officers.

Said Bennett: “This was the first open solicitation for academy candidates in a long time.”

He called the recruitment process “exceptional,” noting that some candidates were referred by current officers. This is leading to a “tight and cohesive team.”

Vice chair Shahidul Mannan questioned Bennett about the number of current officers. In June 2023, there were 19; Bennett said there now are 24 with two potential candidates in the pipeline.

“We’re on target to be the largest we’ve ever been,” Bennett said, noting the maximum number was “25 or 26.”

Regarding leadership roles, Bennett noted that the lieutenant position was posted on Feb. 27, with interviews conducted a few weeks later. In addition to a panel review, Bennett said he conducts an independent assessment of candidates.

Mannan asked about the department’s retention rate, noting an exodus of officers during the pandemic. Last year, Bennett said three officers left, while Brennan was fired in February. He called the previous couple of years “a difficult period.” Overtime opportunities have helped with retention.

Bennett said he wanted to do “stay interviews” with officers to learn the strengths of the department. He compared exit interviews to “an autopsy.”

Member Irfan Nasrullah asked about social media outreach. Bennett said the social media team currently is working on a recruitment video.

Neither Mary Jo LaFreniere nor Amy Ritterbusch asked questions of Bennett.

Kramer questions Bennett’s performance

Kramer began her questioning of Bennett by focusing on an employment satisfaction survey. She said better data needed to be kept rather than a simple summary.

She stressed that the department has done admirably in facing its hiring struggles. But she noted that most of the pressure has fallen on the sergeants, who have stepped up and taken on multiple roles.

Kramer peppered Bennett as to why the lieutenant’s position has been vacant since October 2021. She reminded Bennett that he said filling the role was “his priority” in December 2022.

Said Kramer: “What was the lag? What was the gap?”

Bennett mentioned the allegations of child rape made against former Deputy Chief John “Jay” Porter, to which Porter pled not guilty in May 2023.

“In January, I learned that a sergeant was implicated in some way in it,” Bennett continued in reference to Brennan.

“As a department head, you have to make thousands of decisions,” he explained. “There are things going on that I can’t tell you right now.”

He added that he would have had to take a uniformed patrol officer out of circulation to make a promotion to lieutenant at a time when the department was short staffed. He inferred that Brennan would have been a candidate for lieutenant, saying that it would have been “counterproductive” to promote someone who potentially could be terminated because of his role in not reporting the allegations made to him by Porter’s accuser.

“Candidly, that doesn’t explain the gap,” Kramer replied. “You needed to promote your officers, who were — and by the way still are — doing an excellent job.”

She referenced the sergeants’ letter expressing lowered confidence in Bennett’s leadership abilities and request for help. She also noted that the community questioned why there has been a hiring gap.

Bennett explained that he has taken on many of the lieutenant’s responsibilities. Kramer noted that the sergeants have filled in there as well.

As Kramer pressed him, Bennett told her that since May 2023, she has been engaging “in a maximum campaign of pressure against me — against the department — in support of your friend [Brennan].”

Stressed Bennett: “It’s becoming extremely uncomfortable.”

At that point, Mannan intervened. He noted that the last 18 months has been extremely stressful for Hopkinton, particularly for the police department but also for the Select Board. He said it “was only fair” to include that context.

Mannan also mentioned that the Northwestern County District Attorney’s Office is investigating the release of an improperly redacted report that contained identifying information regarding Porter’s accuser on the HPD news blog.

In an April 5 follow-up email to the Independent, Ritterbusch provided additional information about this investigation.

“The DA hopes to conclude the investigation around May 1 and I hope it will bring more clarity to the public,” she stated. “The DA has also contacted the Select Board twice now to ask us to stop investigating and to hand over any investigation Muriel may have done on her own to the DA.”

Mannan added that the midyear review should focus solely on that time period rather than dredging up the past.

Kramer continued to press Bennett about “the gap” in hiring a lieutenant and deputy chief. She said she has not been involved in “a personal campaign” against Bennett, as he alleged.

“There’s been no action on those until I spoke up,” Kramer said later in the meeting about the two open positions.

“I expect to be treated professionally,” Bennett retorted, noting that Kramer never recused herself from discussions about Brennan. “I expect not to be retaliated against because I took action against your friend.”

Bennett stressed that he “made a management decision” to absorb the duties of the lieutenant and deputy chief into his own role. He said he met his goals despite the additional workload.

“I think we’re getting very personal here,” said LaFreniere, calling a point of order.

The decorum of the board unraveled at that point.

“We’re in the middle of two active investigations,” added Nasrullah. “And the answer we’ve just heard is an answer.”

Mannan added that the first step the Select Board told the chief to take was promote the sergeants. But Kramer delayed this process in Sept. 2023, noting that the Select Board hadn’t been involved in the review as required because it is the hiring authority.

Because the sergeants have taken on extra work, Kramer said the Select Board “was complicit in wage theft.”

Said Kramer: “They need to be compensated if they are doing extra work; that’s the bottom line.”

Mannan said things “sound personal” and that board members “were in the dark” about her previous accusations against Bennett. He also added that Kramer called for an independent investigation against Bennett. The DA’s Office requested that an independent investigation be put on hold until it finishes its own investigation.

Nasrullah called for a “timeout” as things got heated.

Switching gears, Kramer mentioned the release of the unredacted Kroll report on the HPD blog. She asked how processes were corrected. Other members stressed that they are not allowed to discuss it because of the DA’s investigation.

She then dropped a bombshell at Bennett, saying that “active duty officers” have complained to her that he is “not regularly available during work hours.”

When Nasrullah said Kramer went outside the boundaries of the review process, her reply was, “I’m done.”

Bennett’s review concluded without a Select Board evaluation of Bennett’s performance. Members appeared agitated, and the board seemed in disarray.

After the meeting, an executive session was scheduled “to consider the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, discipline, or complaints concerning Police Chief Joseph Bennett.” It was not held.

2 Comments

  1. Ruth

    The members of the PD don’t have confidence in the chief. He has been unavailable to the public at times. A few times some residents in town tried to speak with him about one thing or another and were told he is unavailable. Letters were sent to the board with no reply. Why is he not on adm. Leave until the investigation is over. Officers who have not been promoted or compensated should not have to do extra duty because of an incompetent leader. If they are doing the work promote or compensate . I can’t believe how many months this has been going on.. Saying Kramer has a vendetta against him because of Brennan is like Trump saying the whole legal system is against him. Kudos to her for having the guts to speak up.

    Reply
  2. Kiki Harshman

    With all due respect, Kramer did NOT his hard here. She was asking questions that should have been answered by the Chief and only by the Chief. She came informed and with data to back her up. This is called preparation. Lacking the answer, the chief accused her of having personal vendetta against him. I have teenagers, I know how that goes. The other members either sat quietly or accused her of asking too much outside of the scope, which she clearly didn’t. Found it very disturbing and unprofessional the two male members of the SB laughing at her questions. Is this 5th grade here?
    Where are the recall papers??

    Reply

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