Alan Chartock | I, Publius: Transparency needed in police drunken driving probe
GREAT BARRINGTON >> An article in last week's Berkshire Eagle described the suspension of a police officer who "was suspected of drunken driving" during a traffic stop last month.
Most of us remember the story and many of us were more than a little alarmed by it. The officer in Sheffield who made the traffic stop called his superiors who advised him to allow the suspected Great Barrington officer to make a phone call to find someone to come and get him and drive him home. That was done.
Then all hell broke loose. First there was a question of whether "cop courtesy" was in play. In other words, did police officers have to obey the same laws that the rest of us do?
Put another way, if I was driving while intoxicated would I have received the same courtesy that the officer in question here received? I doubt that I would have.
Certainly I would have been subjected to a Breathalyzer test. I might well have been asked to walk a straight line. There's clearly a double standard here — many, many drivers have been stopped and tested.
This is infuriating because we pay our police to do professional jobs. This is not a volunteer position. It involves substantial training and on-the-job supervision. Time and again, the Great Barrington town meeting has been asked for the equipment and money for salaries that will allow our officers to do their jobs.
As a result of the public outrage over this particular story, investigations were initiated both in Sheffield and Great Barrington. Despite the fact that we have both a town manager and a police chief, the town sprang for a high priced, out of town lawyer to investigate the situation.
We were assured by our town manager that once the investigation was concluded, she would take the appropriate action. After a four-week investigation, it was revealed that the officer in question was placed on unpaid leave, though neither the town manager nor police chief would reveal how long the unpaid suspension would last. Very curious.
Look, this is very serious stuff. The officer was characterized as driving erratically and having slurred speech. The car was described as being filled with the strong odor of alcohol.
Should this officer have had an accident, the consequences could have been disastrous. We are not only talking about injury to the officer himself — innocent citizens might have faced severe injury and possibly death. We have seen these disasters happen time and again.
Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin has made it clear that "We take allegations of off-duty behavior very seriously." The problem with this position is that the public needs to be made more aware of disciplinary procedures and outcomes.
Tabakin tells us that the lawyer the town hired advised her not to reveal details of the investigation conducted by the outside law firm. Sorry, that doesn't wash. This is our taxpayer money.
If we are being told that the town has no tolerance for misbehavior by town police or other employees, it is imperative that we are told when discipline has been imposed. In the case of drunken driving, I don't remember seeing other instances in which we are told of sanctions being leveled.
We recently saw a death of an off-duty officer and, unless I missed it, we were never told of an autopsy toxicology report. We have also read of off-duty parties and then we have learned nothing more except that Tabakin says that the police will receive more training and a two-hour safety class that will be compulsory for members of the department.
Police Chief Walsh has said, "Everyone will be treated the same across the board." At the very least, we will have to see more transparency to make sure that reforms are happening. Otherwise these promises strain credibility.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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