It has been a high-profile week for the Newtown Police Department. On Tuesday, Police Chief Michael Kehoe fielded multiple interview requests from news media interested in NPD’s arrest of a Bridgewater man for the murder of his wife 28 years ago. The arrest in connection with the decades-old cold case was a testament to the dogged investigations of the local department, the Western District State Police, and state’s attorney’s office. The following day, the department’s command was mum on the sentencing Wednesday of a former Newtown police officer and union official on felony larceny charges. Between those two very public events, something else happened in a far more private setting that may have more lasting import on the department. In closed session, the Police Commission took up an “employee diagnostic” report on apparent strained relations between rank-and-file police officers and the department’s command structure.
The report (available online at www.newtownbee.com) was prepared by James McCabe, who spent 21 years in the New York City Police Department, serving in various command assignments, including the post of commanding officer of labor relations. He has several advanced degrees and is now a criminal justice professor at Sacred Heart University. The report, based on surveys and focus groups involving the department’s rank-and-file officers, portrays a department that takes pride in its work but is also riven with distrust and fear of retribution for speaking out about problems within the department. The refusal of many of the police officers to fill out a section on the survey on demographics because it would reveal too much about their identities to the command staff troubled the consultant. In the officers’ view, Dr McCabe observed, “it is advisable to ‘fly under the radar’ because if you say or do anything objectionable in the eyes of the command staff, they will target you and ‘ride’ you until you quit or retire.”
The report notes repeatedly that it tells a one-sided story. None of the command staff, which includes the chief, a captain, and three lieutenants, were interviewed for the report or included in the surveys and focus groups. The actions of the police commanders could also be seen, according to Dr McCabe, as “strong supervision and management.” Whether the facts actually support this view is immaterial, according to the consultant. The perception of a general lack of support and respectful leadership by the rank-and-file officers is very real and affects levels of frustration and morale throughout the department.
This is not a new problem for the Newtown Police Department. These kinds of grievances have been voiced by police union representatives for years. The chronic nature of this perceived “disconnect” within the department may present the Police Commission with its biggest challenge as it attempts to address the problems, mend the rifts, and reestablish the department as a cohesive force. That challenge will not be met, however, if the problems described in Dr McCabe’s report are not acknowledged quickly and addressed head-on.