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News & Noteworthy

After Years Of Embarrassments, Bristol Police Start Reclaiming Their Department

By DON STACOM, dstacom@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

9:08 AM EST, January 2, 2012

BRISTOL

Like police officers everywhere, Lt. Brian Gould is accustomed to the rage of belligerent prisoners and ornery drunks.

But random abuse during a coffee break was never supposed to be part of his job.

In the midst of Bristol's notorious police scandals, Gould, an officer with plenty of commendations and a top-flight reputation, caught flak he didn't earn — like the time he was working back-to-back 8-hour shifts and stopped at a convenience store to buy a Diet Coke.

"I was confronted by an agitated man. He proceeded to yell at me, telling me and everyone else in the store that I should be ashamed of myself and embarrassed to wear the BPD uniform. He continued to yell that he was disgusted with us, that the community had trusted us and we violated that trust," Gould recalled a few years later.

"I stood there thinking, 'All I wanted was a diet soda.'"

Gould's encounter wasn't uncommon. As with most of the 125 men and women of the city's police department, Gould was never part of the troubles that plagued the agency from 2005 through early 2011. Yet they all paid a price for a pattern of misconduct.

After each scandal surfaced, the department became the butt of new jokes. Some officers simply stopped talking about their jobs. One admitted that while in line at Starbucks, he felt like covering the word "Bristol" on his uniform patch.

But as 2012 begins, the police department has begun restoring its image — inside headquarters and out.

Under a widely respected new chief, police are campaigning to build community relations, step up visibility and reduce citizen complaints

"I want everyone to come to work and be proud," says Chief Eric Osanitsch, who took control of the department amid a crisis last winter and was appointed to the top job several months later. "This department has always had the work ethic, it's always had great people. But it didn't have direction from the top."

A fresh command staff is promoting a theme of public service and respect, encouraging supervisors to reward their officers for strong performance, calmly correct honest mistakes and quickly and consistently reprimand violators.

"Coming to work over the last several months has been a new experience," said newly promoted Capt. Thomas Grimaldi. "We're approaching crime and community relations in a different manner. It's really enjoyable to come to work and have those opportunities."

The public is noticing.

"It's a little early to tell, but we haven't had many complaints since [Osanitsch] took over," said barber Lexie Mangum, head of the city's NAACP branch. "He asked us to give him a little time. Well, so far so good."

City council member Ken Cockayne, who had stunned city hall when he publicly demanded the resignation of Osanitsch's predecessor, said there has been a culture change in the chief's office.

"You call about something now and you get action. You used to get excuses," Cockayne said. "And I hear it from people on the street; I see it with the officers. There's a whole new feeling in the department. It's like night and day."

Bad Times

For 51/2 years, the department suffered through lazy or inept supervisors, an abusive captain with a drinking problem and a retired-on-the-job detective. One patrol officer was arrested after allegedly choking his pregnant girlfriend at Disney World, and another was charged with drunkenly smashing a cruiser into a utility pole.

Outside investigators failed to prove an accusation that off-duty officers broadcast racist slurs over a basement radio station, but veterans privately conceded it was true. An animal control officer drowned a wounded cat in a bucket. Civilian complaints of brutality rose, and morale among honest officers eroded.

A clique of politically popular officers appeared to violate rules with impunity, while most of the force adopted a code of "do your work, keep your head down and go home." Through it all, top commanders ignored, denied or covered up problem after problem.

Politicians followed suit: The city council simply pretended nothing was wrong. One mayor spent two years lamenting how a few city streets were cluttered with abandoned utility poles, but said not a word as his police department devolved into dysfunction. The police board, loaded with political appointees assigned to keep watch over the agency, argued instead about parking fines or barking dog complaints.

Supervisors privately described a tone of secretiveness and paranoia at headquarters in those years.

Commanders angrily demanded retribution each time bad news leaked out, yet rarely punished the ones who created the crises. Whistleblowers and internal investigators were accused of disloyalty at staff meetings or frozen out of promotions. Even so, many officers, outraged by favoritism and mismanagement, risked their careers by discreetly telling the truth to politicians and the press.

Osanitsch, a captain at the time, and a network of mid-level managers quietly struggled to coach patrol officers to stay positive. Hard-working detectives and patrol officers who had no hand in any misconduct frequently bore the brunt of the public backlash.

"It's a great city. There are great people here, [but] we always had a cloud over our head," said Det. Lt. Kevin Morrell, a 24-year veteran who until recently was head of the traffic unit. "It was kind of embarrassing sometimes to tell people where you worked because of some of the things going on."

After the city finally relieved Chief John DiVenere of duty last February, Osanitsch began restructuring. He filled command slots with officers known for integrity, promoting Grimaldi to run the patrol division and making Morrell chief of detectives. Most of the old administration was already gone.

Osanitsch made the rounds of every division and every shift, assuring officers that with their help, the city Bristol would soon have a respected force again. He promised even-handed treatment and a willingness to listen. Officers with alcohol troubles, family problems or financial crises will get help. Those who legitimately use force to make arrests would get management's support, he said, but any who bully citizens or deliberately violate rules would pay a price.

Newly promoted commanders revised policies to build accountability and are campaigning to earn the department state accreditation. They've been advising officers not to dwell on what went wrong before, but to consistently do solid work.

"We cannot just forget about the past, we need to learn from it," Gould said. "We now have the responsibility of earning respect and trust from our community."

Gould's assignment is to screen job applicants and then instill an ethical code that can last for their careers. Osanitsch views it as a key position.

"Everything is your people, everything," Osanitsch said. "We're more than willing to drop candidates if we see red flags being raised. When you hire in this field, you have the potential to have that person for 25 years or more. You have to be selective. I'd rather go short than hire for the sake of hiring."

At the same time, the agency is eager to rebuild. Its roster dwindled during the bad years, and is down more than 10 people from its peak. Despite the city's budget crisis, Osanitsch wants to bolster the patrol ranks to handle steadily increasing calls.

He is transferring one or two headquarters jobs to civilians to free up officers, and is studying how to change shift assignments to maximize staffing during peak demand. Even so, the department needs to bring in a significant number of recruits in the next year.

Osanitsch's immediate goals are to create a full-service traffic unit to crack down on speeding and reckless driving, the most frequent complaint from residents. He also wants to restore the crime suppression unit, a team that targeted trouble spots.

Even short-staffed, police have been getting results in the past year. The narcotics unit arrested nearly a half-dozen suspected heroin dealers, and the patrol division won praise from downtown businesses by cleaning up the seedy lower Summer Street section.

New Rules

Young officers and veterans alike are watching to see if the promised changes happen.

"This is my first chief change," Officer Chris Bird said. "It's almost comparable to a football team getting a brand-new coach. You have to be optimistic. It's a new regime; you have to hope for the best — which it's been."

Two months after Osanitsch was sworn in, he faced a test. Officers filed a minor misdemeanor charge against an off-duty lieutenant who had been in a dispute with his wife. Osanitsch drove to work on a Sunday night to collect the officer's badge and gun, and made sure the officer had access to the employee assistance program if he wanted it. The case was resolved and the lieutenant has resumed work.

Longtime officers say that's a change from the days when the matter might have been buried or held over the lieutenant's head for years. Morrell said the new chief's philosophy demands discipline, but without grudges: "I've seen him give people a suspension, but then it's over. They'll shake hands with him after."

Sgt. Russ Marcham, one of the agency's newer street supervisors, emphasizes the line between errors and misconduct. In addressing patrol officers, he puts forward four rules.

"Do your job, don't embarrass yourself, don't embarrass me, don't paint me into a corner where I can't defend you," Marcham said. "If you're doing your job, number 2 is not going to happen, number 3 is not going to happen, number 4 is not going to happen.

"Everyone is entitled to have an 'oops' on the jobs, have an honest goof-up. I can defend you on that," he said. "With some of the things that happened here in the past, guys maybe hadn't done their jobs or had embarrassed themselves and added to that stigma of low morale. All of that seems to have changed."

While the department still has some internal rivalries, officers say the mood is lighter now in cruisers, the locker room and the staff lounge. More relatives and off-duty police show up for promotion ceremonies, and they're more likely to stay and chat afterward.

Officer Scott Hayden says the results are obvious every day.

"When I stop in at businesses and talk with the business owner or workers, they're much more happy to see us, much more willing to provide us with information so we're able to help them," Hayden says. "We feel like we're more of a functioning police department again. It's much better that we can work more closely with the public."

 

 

 


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