Clarence Fanto: A rock and a hard place in Egremont
"The town faces difficult choices ahead." That's the succinct conclusion of a management study commissioned by the town of Egremont to examine the dysfunctional police department top to bottom, inside and out. Difficult? How about nearly impossible.
The study is a remarkably detailed, often shocking, yet also understated document from Pomeroy Resources Inc. The investigative firm is headed by Robert J. Pomeroy, an attorney who's also a former police chief in Plymouth and other eastern Massachusetts communities.
Egremont Police Chief Reena Bucknell was placed on paid administrative leave in late February after the unionized police force of three full-time and five part-time officers staged a mutiny by voting "no confidence" in her leadership, accusing her of creating a hostile work environment. They cited chapter and verse, and the 41-page report (posted at www.berkshireeagle.com) is a compelling horror story worthy of a Hollywood screenwriter's pitch to a movie studio.
There was the arsenal of ammunition (20,000 rounds!) found in a storage room, far beyond what the small town could ever need, as well as a trove of never-used equipment. There was an atmosphere of paranoia created when the officers were ordered by the chief not to talk to each other, nor to town or outside officials. There was a "hot list" of 200 citizens whom police were supposed to monitor closely, including a prominent but unidentified town official and his wife. There was an abysmal lack of training. There was massive turnover, 60 officers in Bucknell's 15-year tenure. There was much more.
On the other hand, Bucknell was praised for keen intelligence, compassion and -- incredibly -- perhaps being too soft on her officers, according to eight local officials and outside law enforcement leaders who were sought out for comments.
Interestingly, Pomeroy and his colleagues did not interview anyone from the Lenox police force, where Bucknell was employed for many years prior to her arrival in Egremont in 1998.
The Egremont Select Board plans to seek a meeting with Bucknell later this month -- she has ducked previous opportunities for a get-together and has been incommunicado since this scandal erupted.
The Pomeroy report did not propose a way out of this tangled web of disruption, though it stated that the complaints did not meet the precise legal definition of a "hostile work environment."
But it did outline several scenarios among "limited outcomes" following the "nuclear option" chosen by the police officers who voted no-confidence -- "usually a messy business indeed," the report noted.
The chief could resign or retire, "painless for the community, but painful for the executive." The chief could be pushed out with a severance package -- a scaled-down "golden parachute" -- or a settlement stemming from litigation.
Or, the report points out, the chief could remain in office either with "little fanfare," or after a series of hearings and the implementation of a "performance plan." That outcome would require the disgruntled officers either to quit or "eat a large slice of humble pie."
As the study acknowledges, her supporters in town will create "a public outcry" if she departs. On the other hand, if the chief stays, there's likely to be "public outrage."
So, it's a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't dilemma facing town leaders, who have had more than their share of turmoil on other issues of late. No doubt, they'll be walking on a tightrope to avert a potentially costly lawsuit by an aggrieved chief. Is a graceful exit by Bucknell, who's near retirement age and has served in law enforcement for more than 30 years, in the cards? Unlikely perhaps, but that could be the ideal outcome.
Whatever happens, the town's 1,225 citizens deserve a complete reboot in their police department, and nothing less.
Clarence Fanto writes for The Eagle. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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