Tisbury Selectmen Clash With Their Police Chief; Will Not Reappoint Him

By JOSHUA SABATINI

As the Tisbury selectmen exchanged a series of terse memos with their chief of police, John McCarthy, the chief revealed this week that he's been put on notice: The selectmen, who also serve as police commissioners, do not intend to reappoint him when his three-year contract expires in June.

Chief McCarthy said the selectmen told him last June that this was to be his last year with the department. "They indicated to me they valued my services to the town and want me to leave in an appropriate and respectful manner," Chief McCarthy told the Gazette yesterday. "I was pretty stunned."

This July, Chief McCarthy will be a year and a half from eligibility for retirement at full pension. "I have seen big corporations let someone go right before retirement, but I cannot picture the town doing this to a longtime employee," he said. "I do not want to be in a fight with the town."

Before Christmas, the selectmen quietly offered Chief McCarthy a retirement package if he was to step down immediately. That offer expired in January, and Mr. McCarthy let it pass.

Contract negotiations between the selectmen and the chief are ongoing. This week, they reached a decidedly adversarial stage.

Monday morning, Chief McCarthy received a memo hand-delivered by town administrator Dennis Luttrell. The memo refers to the Wasserman report, a study of the police department commissioned by the town and released early last year. The report recommended the hiring of a new lieutenant as second in command under Chief McCarthy, with "responsibility for all department operations, including patrol, investigations and administration." The new lieutenant is Theodore Saulnier.

Monday's memo reads: "Now that the Lieutenant has been on board for over five months, it is time to immediately relinquish the operations of the Police Department to the Lieutenant."

"The language in the letter appeared to me designed to get a shock response," said Chief McCarthy. Wednesday, as he was drafting a reply to the memo asking the board to clarify certain points, Mr. Luttrell handed him a follow-up memo. The memo stated: "[On Monday morning] you indicated your refusal to comply with the Selectmen's direct order." Mr. Luttrell went on to deliver a deadline: "If I do not receive your written response to the Selectmen's directive by 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2002 I will have to assume your verbal statements and subsequent conduct are for the record and I will act accordingly."

"I was surprised," said Chief McCarthy.

Mr. McCarthy did, in fact, reply in writing to the two memos yesterday afternoon. He took issue with the suggestion that he was unwilling to comply with the selectmen's requests. And he argued that in his handling of the department, he is following the recommendations of the Wasserman report.

Chief McCarthy wasn't sure what to make of the tone of the memos sent on behalf of the selectmen, but he was concerned they represented a move to remove him as chief.

Last night selectman Tristan Israel told the Gazette, "I am not asking Chief McCarthy to step down; he is not being asked to."

Mr. McCarthy has served the Tisbury police department for almost 28 years. He began as a special officer on May 2, 1974 and advanced to a full-time officer that summer. In June 1981, Mr. McCarthy was appointed as acting chief and in February 1982 he was appointed as the full-time chief of police.

Chief McCarthy and the town have seen their share of problems and disagreements. The most serious of them date to 1997, when Sgt. Theophilus M. Silva 3rd filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In April 2000, the matter was ended with a $375,000 settlement. Two additional complaints are still pending against the town. One, filed by Frank Williams, is before the Massachusetts Labor Relations Commission. The other, filed by Mike Gatley, is before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination.

In 2000, the town hired Wasserman Associates Inc. to study the department and provide recommendations on how to improve operations.

The report, released last February, called the department "dysfunctional at best" and made 12 recommendations. The selectmen have worked to implement the report's recommendations.

Most recently, selectmen and the chief of police have clashed over the department's size. "I have tried to be above board and straightforward," said Chief McCarthy. "I have to make recommendations for safety concerns, safety for the police and to deliver services - but I am the safety guy."

The different visions of the department's size have strained the working relationship, the chief said.

"I want to avoid being placed in a position to sue the town for wrongful firing and age discrimination," said Chief McCarthy.

The Wasserman report stated pointedly that "firing the Chief of Police will not solve the situation." And Mr. Israel said yesterday that all the selectmen want to do is follow the report. "My main motivation since it came out has been to adhere to what is recommended," he said. "And I want the police department to adhere to it, too. We need to move forward with the department, and I think this report is the road map."

Chief McCarthy said he agrees with the report and believes he is following its recommendations by steadily handing more control of its daily operations over to his lieutenant.

Mr. Israel said he would not be part of any effort to treat the chief of police badly. "I've been a longtime supporter of Chief McCarthy, and I want anything that happens to him to be fair and equitable," he said.