A Tale of Two Chiefs – by Mike Coughlin

by Mike Coughlin
former Cohasset Town Manager

Over a year ago, interviewing before the Town Manager Search Committee headed by now Interim Town Manager Mike Milanowski,  I reasoned that Cohasset may gain some guidance by lessons I learned when I was Town Manager in Southbridge.  While the reason for bringing up Southbridge was because the audit conducted by Melanson and Heath mentioned my “adopted” home town as a model for the future management of Cohasset’s Water and Sewer operations, the citizens of Cohasset would do well to consider Southbridge’s approach to the town’s present controversy concerning between the union and Chief Mark Deluca.

This past week the Southbridge Police Association Local 153 of Mass COP issued a letter to the Town Manager questioning the ability of their chief to lead their department.  The letter signed by twenty four officers with four voting against and one who abstained,  listed 5 allegations including claims of retaliation, undue pressure and interference in communications between the union and the town manager.  Further,  akin to the statement issued by Cohasset Union President Patrick Reardon- echoed by his State Director of the New England Police Benevolent Association (NEPBA), the Union President in Southbridge. Detective Scott Bailey also claimed that the allegations against the Southbridge Chief had nothing to do with union business.

Despite the stark similarities between Southbridge and Cohasset,  Southbridge Chief Dan Charette – whom I appointed some ten years ago – was not placed on administrative leave like Chief DeLuca nor did his town manager instruct the town attorney to conduct a so called ‘independent” investigation into the union allegations.

Instead,  Southbridge Town Manager Christopher Clark issued a public statement fully supporting Chief Charette going on to state in the Worcester Telegram the widely accepted municipal managerial principle that all Town Managers/Administrators should give department heads “The credit they deserve that they should be able to manage their own departments and manage any issues that come out of those departments.”

So it begs the question,  why is the Cohasset response to Chief DeLuca so different than Southbridge?  Its literally a tale of two chiefs as the charges against the chiefs are almost identical.  Possible answers could be the inexperience of the Interim Town Manager,  the fact that Southbridge has better legal counsel than Cohasset or most likely that there is a hidden agenda behind the case against Chief DeLuca.

Although I fully support the right of public employees to collectively bargain,  experience has taught me that a certain degree of conflict between labor and management is a given and almost always present.  As Attorney Jack Collins of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association will tell you its becoming a sad fact of life for sitting police chiefs to be the target of such attacks– indeed he jokes that it is now an “occupational hazard.”  I truly believe that any informed observer would  see this as a matter in which the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen should have stayed out of – so why did they do it?

In my mind, the case against Chief DeLuca is much like the memorable scene in the wartime movie Casablanca -after the Germans are reminded that the Free French will not meekly submit to their rule–  the German Major pulling the puppet strings of the Vichy French Police Chief  instructs him to close Humphrey Bogart’s bar.  When asked “On What grounds,”  the Major responds “Find some” with Police Chief Claude Raines going on to utter the classic line that “I am shocked– shocked that gambling is going on here,” as a waiter hands him his winnings.

Besides being my friend and a law enforcement official who I admire greatly,  Chief DeLuca stood up at town meeting to warn about the dangers of a dark station.  Like the Free French in the movie – he did not meekly submit to those in town who pull the strings behind closed door.   Indeed–one notable power elite went up to him after his speech  and warned chastised for telling the truth and putting both the Board and Interim Town Manager in a bad light.  Shortly afterward,  his ordeal began- the orders were given and some grounds had to be found.  The allegations from the union may have been convenient and expedient- but devoid of fairness.

Unless the report clear and convincingly proves that allegations in the letter issued by Interim Town Manager placing Chief DeLuca on administrative leave– namely “forging important documents ,  physical abuse  and abusing authority during an internal affairs investigation,” then the Chief should be reinstated and be given an apology.

As I have been named in some of the eleven allegations issued by the town attorney while approving other actions to which is accused,  the fact that I have yet to asked to give testimony, once again questions the fairness, objectivity and completeness of the so called “independent” investigation.  Once again, causing me to consider the warning to the Board of Selectmen by former Chief Jim Hussey, that past investigations into alleged police officer misconduct led by the town attorney have ended in costly legal repercussions for the Cohasset taxpayers.

The Board of Selectmen also has another lingering question – one of determining whether justice was rendered or an injustice occurred in the discipline of past officers within the Cohasset Police Department.  A pivotal claim by Chief DeLuca since the get-go of this matter is that internal investigations may have treated different officers to different standards — namely the internal investigation conducted last fall concerning Sgt John Conte.

Since both Chief DeLuca and I were involved in the Conte matter, the Chief has shared his concerns that the approach taken with recent internal investigation concerning Sgt Jeff Trainor appears to be very different to the one conducted last year concerning Sgt  Conte.  To be fair, discipline must be across the board. In small police departments this may be morally and ethically difficult, since everyone works together but to maintain the public’s continuing trust. Investigations should not be open to the perception that some officers may have looked the other way in some cases and but not in others.

As the Town Manager who signed off on the resolution of  Sgt Conte’s case and as both an attorney and officer of the court who has taken a continuing oath to seek justice wherever it may lie,  I am deeply troubled about claims of potential double standard within the Cohasset Police Department and emerging new evidence that may constitute grounds for an another another look at the fairness in which the Conte case was handled.

A wise man once told me that only a fool feels himself smart enough not to admit where he may have made a mistake and I am not a fool. And so if there was a double standard in the handling of the Conte matter, if a mistake was made in the Conte matter, his case should be reopened and I owe him and his family an apology.

The ultimate question is now– particularly in light in the manner in which the Town of Southbridge is handling their police unions claims against their chief — is whether town officials in Cohasset are smart enough to admit that their handling of union claims about Chief DeLuca may have been a  mistake and instead of issuing him an apology whether they continue to remain arrogant or foolish enough to to proclaim that this continuing destruction of a man’s reputation is a shining example of American justice.

© Copyright 2012 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed