Commentary: Department Moving Forward

By Councilman O’Brien

The Mayor decided to end his probe into the leadership of the Police Department after the Chief and a police sergeant abuptly retired from their posts last month. Since February, the department has been the subject of a number of complaints and state police investigations. Each complaint has been or is being investigated and each investigation has been specific to particular issues. The Mayor’s investigation was similarly tailored to assess the working relationships between the officers and leadership of the department. After the leadership changed, there seems to be little reason to continue the probe which hadn’t yet been completed. Yet, some residents have come to me concerned that ceasing the investigation alludes to a possible cover-up in the department. Recent newspaper articles last week fed that concern. Hopefully some residents were able to view the televised Town Council meeting from last week where this subject was discussed at greater length.

The Mayor is responsible for the overall running of the town. As in any workplace, particularly those who’s mission is public service, complaints are recieved and there are often interpersonal issues which need to be addressed. For example, anonymous letters have been appearing in the Wolcott Community News complaining about the library for the past year. Whenever any complaint is received, it is investigated by the Mayor’s office or the appropriate department head, depending on the circumstances. Rarely do such issues become as sensationalized or important as those in the police department this year.

In this case, the Mayor began his investigation almost simultaneously as when other complaints became public in the newspaper. The State has so far completed an investigation into alleged misconduct by an officer. At a recent Council meeting, Town Attorney Tynan noted that others are ongoing. The end of one investigation has not meant that all are completed. While those are completed, newly acting Chief Neil O’Leary, is already busy evaluating the needs for future improvements to the department. His appointment alone has changed the leadership of the department because his style of policing promises to be different than that of Chief Scirpo’s. In this light, I feel the Mayor’s decision is appropriate.

Law enforcement students understand that there are many different styles of policing. These styles are dependent upon the Chief’s preferences combined with the type of community he or she serves. For example, the focus of the police department of a major city would be much different than a rural industrial town, or that of a coastal tourist community. Likewise, two chiefs with different educational or professional experiences might have different preferences. Some departments focus on community relations, others on enforcement. This morning’s newspaper points to an initiative of community policing through pomoting neighborhood watch programs which have not been emphasized in past years.

Understandably, some Council members and perhaps the public are expecting a list of problems and recomendations of the department. Such a list would be expected in a consultant’s report, but not a personel investigation. There is a clear difference. To satisfy this expectation, the Town Council could have hired a consulting firm to evaluate the department’s needs. Five years ago, a state oversight board hired consultants to examine the practices of the Waterbury police and fire departments to see what enhancements in services they could provide and see where the city could save costs. Such an investment would be quite expensive, though worthwhile.

Yet, Wolcott doesn’t need to do this. In fact, we solved two things at once when the former chief retired. The Mayor hired a consultant for the chief’s job. Chief O’Leary was being sought by a Virginia consulting firm to work for them when Mayor Dunn asked him to take Wolcott’s helm. This fact shouldn’t be overlooked after the work O’Leary performed in Waterbury where he emmphasized and bolstered the community relations division, increasing participation both by youths and adult volunteers into the police athletic league. He also served while the above noted consultant report was written. Not only did Wolcott hire a chief, but a man with experience at raising the morale of officers and meshing his department with the community. With the Council’s assistance – and only with its assistance as well as the willingness of other community organizations – we should expect positive results. Participation by community institutions is vital to the success of a community oriented department.

The Town Council approved a one year contract which gives O’Leary a deadline to show lasting results. If things work well, this may turn into a trial period to see if he is the kind of chief Wolcott would like when his contract expires. While some Councilmen would like to see a list of recomendations for the department, the Chief is already working on improvements. At the August meeting, the Council approved a grant for computer technology for the department to complete reports which are currently written by hand. A newspaper article this morning profiles Detective Brian Boutote to promote neighborhood watch programs as part of community policing initiatives the Department will implement. O’Leary has met with the Council once already and invited members to ask him questions at any time.

Wolcott has been blessed with a department with veteran officers. The most junior officers have five years experience, and the ones before them, twelve. If all employees are willing to move forward and put the past behind them, then the department as an optimistic future. Chief O’Leary is known for setting fair and reasonable expectations in Waterbury and I have no doubt that he would hold employees to them. At the last Council meeting, the mayor mentioned how he’d like to move forward. Indeed, many sordid details and raw letters to the editor have been on public display this past year. There is healing to be done, and prolonging the opportunity to do so roots us in the past. It is time to put this behind us and allow the town to plan for a better, trusted, and professional department worthy to serve our town. Efforts by the new chief show his commitment in already a short amount of time, and the department should be given time to prove how well it can perform.


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