Law enforcement officials weigh in on decision not to charge Great Barrington officer suspected of drunken driving
Circumstance and situation.
Those are key elements that law enforcement professionals said would be factors in a local police department's decision not to arrest an off-duty police officer who was believed to be drunk behind the wheel.
While some say the incident early Saturday on the Sheffield-Great Barrington town line has the whiff of favoritism, others took a more nuanced position.
"I don't know Sheffield specifically," said Mark K. Leahy, executive director of the Worcester-based Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association. "But I'm sure there is only one officer, maybe two, on that overnight shift out there. Say he runs a field sobriety test, then he arrests the guy and books him. That takes him out of circulation for what, two hours? Three?
"So what that does, is it takes him away from the community he's supposed to be serving for that length of time," Leahy said. "And I can assure you, the calls keep coming in during all that time. That's something a [District Attorney] or the public doesn't think about. You have to weigh a lot of factors here. If you can get this guy home safely, and get back out on the road, it may be the way to go."
Great Barrington Police Officer Daniel Bartini was stopped about 1:35 a.m. Saturday after Sheffield Officer Brendan Polidoro saw him cross the center median on Route 7 near the Great Barrington town line, according to the officer's report. In a police report, Polidoro said when he approached the vehicle, he detected a "strong odor" of alcohol in the car. He also detected that Bartini displayed what he described as typical symptoms of alcohol impairment, including bloodshot eyes and slurred speech. While Polidoro reported that he believed Bartini was intoxicated, he did not ask him to perform a field sobriety test, instead allowing him to summon a ride home.
The incident has sparked an investigation of the traffic stop by the Great Barrington Police Department. Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said on Tuesday the investigation is underway, but she did not have a timetable for its completion.
Several law enforcement sources, many of whom were uncomfortable talking on the record, had differing views on the issue.
But one former police chief said times — and attitudes — have changed.
"Look. In the old days?" he said. "Yeah, I let people go. Not all the time, but sometimes. But now? I told my guys: 'You're risking your job and your pension for someone who probably wouldn't do it for you.'"
"There's an ethical issue," said another former officer. "If Joe Nobody is driving drunk, do you let him off? And there's another issue: I know the officer found the driver a ride home, but what if he didn't? You let a guy go, and you just don't know what's going to happen. With the way liability laws are now, there's too much at stake."
Complicating matters is that there is no uniform policy for OUI stops, said Leahy.
"The individual community makes that call," he said. "Some states have a policy, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has specific policies for a number of other situations. But not OUI."
Overall, those who weighed in via phone on Tuesday seemed to bend toward charging Bartini.
"He knew the score," one officer said. "He knew what would happen if he got caught."
Sheffield Select Board Chairwoman Nadine Hawyer termed the situation, "an unfortunate incident, and both our department and the Great Barrington Police Department are investigating the situation. I think we have to trust our police chief and his officers to make those decisions. I don't wear the uniform. I've gone on ride-alongs, but I don't wear the uniform."
"I understand the issue," said a North County officer. "It's a tough situation to be in. But the scrutiny today is just so much greater. I think in 2016, you can't even give the appearance of favoritism. And the thing is, if you let the guy go, maybe he thinks he can get away with it all the time. You're not really doing anyone any favors."
Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.
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