Departures at Egremont Police Department will continue - with chief's resignation

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EGREMONT — Egremont can't hold on to its police officers — a situation that's leaving gaps in law enforcement coverage.

Over the past two years, eight Egremont police officers have resigned from the town's department — and soon, newly hired Police Chief Erik Josephson will depart as well, after disagreements with the Select Board.

The cause for upheaval stems from three main problems: a power struggle between the chief and Select Board over control of the Police Department, a lack of career advancement opportunities and possible personality conflicts.

Many officers who resigned were Egremont officers for less than a year, and each seemed to have his or her reason for departing.

Josephson said he is leaving when his contract expires in June, because the Select Board is too involved in the department. Josephson was hired in April.

"This was supposed to be a `strong chief' position," Josephson said, referring to an adoptable Massachusetts provision that gives elected officials control of a police department's budget while the chief governs the department and its officers, mostly unfettered.

"I am supposed to be able to run the department as I see fit. They're interfering in the day-to-day," Josephson said, citing the board's involvement in scheduling officer vacation time.

Select Board Vice Chairman George McGurn said the board did not overextend its authority with the Police Department, but he can see how Josephson might not have been happy. The board's biggest concerns about the Police Department have been staffing amid turnover and whether the chief was doing an adequate job of dealing with it.

"Do we get concerned when the Police Department is not staffed the way we agreed it would be staffed? Yeah," McGurn said. "Turnover was certainly one of the major things, and it wasn't like one occasion or anything like that. It's a real pattern, so we talked to him, and talked to him again, and the issue didn't get solved."

He paused: "I suppose if I were the police chief, perhaps I would think the Select Board was overreaching. But he reports to the Select Board, and I think we were just doing our job, frankly."

Select Board Chairman Bruce Turner did not return calls seeking comment.

Scant coverage on nights, weekends

Egremont has little police coverage nights and weekends because of a lack of officers, a situation compounded by one of the town's two full-time officers being away for training at the Massachusetts Police Academy, Josephson said.

He said that residents are still protected, even if there are no Egremont officers on duty. When shifts go unfilled, the town relies on the Massachusetts State Police to respond to emergencies.

Josephson said the department's seven part-time officers work the maximum number of shifts per month allowed under the town's police union pact.

"There are some good officers here," Josephson said. "There's real potential to do good here."

The Select Board has yet to accept Josephson's letter of intent to resign, which the chief provided to the board in early September. But board member Mary Brazie said it's time for Egremont to approve the departure and move on with a new police chief search. It will be the third search for an Egremont police chief in five years.

"A while back, we got [Josephson's intent-to-resign letter], but the board did not discuss it," Brazie said. "Our personnel director, Bill Tighe, says it's time to accept it and move forward."

Staffing

Josephson said a major tipping point in his decision to resign was the Select Board's involvement in an officer's discipline after allegations that the officer had been secretly audio recording people inside and outside the police station. That is illegal in Massachusetts, where you are required to inform people when they are being recorded.

The board and Tighe did their own investigation, and the officer remained on the force. It is unclear if disciplinary actions were taken against the officer. Josephson described the handling of the situation as "unethical."

"This is not what I signed on for," Josephson said. "I don't fix tickets. I don't make cases disappear. I don't compromise my ethics for anything.

"I'm not comfortable with how they handled the 'wire tapping,'" he added. "The political overreach was too much."

Josephson said there were other incidents that led him to resign, but he had been advised by his attorney not to discuss them publicly.

Police officer resignation letters, which The Eagle obtained through a public records request, don't provide many details as to why people have been fleeing the department.

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One officer quit after his first day at the Police Academy; two longtime officers left for better-paying jobs; one left for personal reasons; and two didn't provide notice. One resigned after less than a month, after he was asked to investigate Josephson's handling of a neighbor dispute.

Resignation letters closed with gratitude to the town and the department.

"I appreciate the opportunities, support and guidance this department has given me," Brandon Yap writes in his resignation letter from Nov. 23. "I wish nothing but the best to this department."

Yap was a part-time member of the Egremont Police Department for about seven months.

McGurn and Josephson said there are a number of reasons why officers left, including the department's structure. The town does not have multiple tiers of hierarchy — just officers and the chief. If an officer wants to advance his career, he often has to look outside Egremont.

When asked if changes he made to the department as the new chief irked some officers, Josephson said he was eager to push the department to achieve accreditation by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission. Being accredited largely means that a department has determined policies and procedures that follow recognized best law enforcement practices. It brings stability to a department, the commission said on its website, and a system for checks and balances.

"I've never had a problem," said Josephson, who has been a police officer for 34 years. "People like my management style. People are usually on board."

Resigned

The Egremont police officers who have resigned since Jan. 1, 2017 are full-time officers Kyle Kemp (2012 to August), and Robert "Sam" Hungate (September 2017 to April); and part-time officers Shawn Boyne (November, less than a month), Yap (May to November); Ashley Decker (May to August); Michael Rossi (start date unknown to February); Lucas Perry (start date unknown to November 2017) and Theodore Crosby (start date unknown to May 2017).

Hungate resigned after his first day at the Massachusetts State Police Academy; he's now an officer at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. Kemp and Rossi resigned for higher-paying positions in Stockbridge and Adams, respectively. Decker resigned for "personal reasons," according to her letter. Yap and Crosby quit without giving any notice. Boyne also quit without giving notice, but summed up his reasons in a separate Nov. 20 letter to the chief.

Investigated?

Boyne had the shortest tenure, at less than a month on the force, and possibly the most experience of anyone who has resigned. The former state trooper and New Milford, Conn., police chief said he was leaving Egremont over concern that the department could get him in trouble. He was particularly alarmed over allegedly being asked to investigate the police chief.

"I am a consummate and seasoned professional that chose not to be exploited and to avoid a future of exposure to political immersion in law enforcement operations," Boyne wrote in the letter obtained by The Eagle through a public records request.

"My concerns of exposure to public and professional scrutiny were the catalyst of my decision to resign."

About a month after Josephson sent a letter of intent to resign, the Select Board and Tighe had him investigated by Boyne over complaints regarding the handling of a longtime neighbor dispute, Josephson said. Boyne called the complaints "minimal."

But Select Board Vice Chairman McGurn said he is not aware of an investigation into the chief by an officer.

"I don't know about the chief being investigated — that is really not accurate," McGurn said.

Boyne, who did not respond to a request for comment, said in the letter that he wanted to back away from a politicized Police Department.

"I felt the entire process was concerning and as [a] public servant, I have learned the immersion of political interest in police department operations is problematic," Boyne wrote.

Josephson's impending departure continues a police chief saga in Egremont that rivals the exodus of officers.

Josephson will have served for a year, and before that, Tyler Race was chief for a year. Retired police chief and now-part-time officer Brian Shaw lead the department from 2013 to 2016. Before that, the town had Chief Reena Bucknell for 15 years. The end of Bucknell's tenure was marred by a vote of no confidence from her officers. She filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against the town and settled out of court in 2017.

Once the Select Board accepts Josephson's resignation, Tighe can begin the formation of a new police chief search committee.

Select Board member Brazie said the next police chief should be someone local.

"We need someone who knows the area and the people, someone who knows what we need," she said.

Kristin Palpini can be reached at kpalpini@berkshireeagle.com, @kristinpalpini, 413-629-4621.


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