West Tisbury interviews police chief candidates

After the five hour-long weekend interviews of the finalists for the police chief’s job, West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell summed it all up.

“We now have seen everything we need to see,” she said. Selectman chairman Richard Knabel agreed.

The Friday night community forum at the Howes House was “standing room only.” Mrs. Mitchell moderated the program that began with each finalist speaking for about 10 minutes and then audience members asked questions.

The finalists included West Tisbury Acting Police Chief Dan Rossi, Donald B. Hull, deputy chief of police in Canton, Conn., and Christian Pedoty, lieutenant of police with the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority Police Department.

The search committee members — including chairman Bob Wasserman, Al DeVito, Pierce Kirby, David Merry and Faith (“Hasty”) Runner — began the search process in July, and Mrs. Mitchell thanked them for their service at the start of the Friday evening forum.

During the special meeting of the selectmen held on Saturday from 9:30 am to 1 pm in Town Hall, Mrs. Mitchell and Mr. Knabel together interviewed each finalist separately, asking the same questions of each of the off-island finalists and similar questions of Acting Chief Dan Rossi. After each finalist met with the selectmen he could remain in the room to hear how fellow competitors answered the same questions. Only the selectmen asked questions of the finalists.

Selectman, and police officer, Jeffrey (“Skipper”) Manter sat in the audience during both the Friday evening and Saturday morning sessions. He has recused himself during the selection process.

The Community Forum

The finalists, sitting at a table in front of the audience of about 25 people, drew lots before the forum to decide order of speaking: Mr. Rossi spoke first, Mr. Hull second, and Mr. Pedoty last. Afterwards, they answered audience questions in a rotating order.

Each candidate was asked to highlight career achievements, describe philosophy and approach to police work, and to describe police chief accountability.

Each finalist was also asked to discuss (1) how he would keep officers engaged during the low-activity winter months, and (2) address challenges he would face as police chief and how he would meet those challenges.

The off-Island candidates were asked to discuss how their experience would relate to West Tisbury and prepare them for the job of police chief.

Acting Chief Rossi was asked to discuss changes in the department he would make and how he might be different from his predecessors.

Each finalist said they were committed to community policing practices that begin by showing respect to people in the department, residents of the town, and town employees. And each stressed the need to be out in the community, not behind a desk, in a job they agreed was a 24/7 commitment.

All agreed that the chief is responsible for budget, maintaining the upkeep of the station, the department’s property, and the professional certification of the officers. They also acknowledged that the chief must maintain communication with the selectmen and other town departments.

Each candidate agreed that programs in the schools are important. Each said that during the off-season there is more time for the officers to receive in-service and formal training, develop plans for the busy season, and undertake projects initiated by the officers.

The finalists each said that in a small police department the staff must feel a part of the team and be encouraged to bring fresh ideas and new programs to the attention of the chief. They agreed on the importance of maintaining an open-door policy both for the officers in the police department as well as town residents.

Mr. Rossi highlighted his promotion to the position of Acting Chief and the five years he served as school resource officer as well as an assistant football coach at the high school. He said his greatest accomplishment was when, in July, “I was approached by the members of the police department wanting to write a letter supporting me for chief.”

Mr. Rossi said that he would like to change the rank structure. Currently there are three sergeants. He would prefer a lieutenant, a sergeant, and a corporal.

“This could be accomplished at no extra cost to the town,” he said, and would allow the lieutenant to take on more responsibility and have a greater opportunity for advancement. He told the audience that he would also like to reinstate the school resource officer program.

Mr. Pedoty highlighted his experience as a patrol officer in the Bronx working to develop community relationships to ease violent crime and drugs in the area. He also spoke of the diversity of his experience — having been an officer on the island of Kauai in the state of Hawaii as well as New York City. “I truly enjoy living and working in rural settings where I feel like I am part of the community, and I can make a difference in my surroundings,” he said.

The biggest challenge Mr. Pedoty said he expects to face is earning the acceptance of the citizens and members of the department.

“It is easy to say ‘what does this guy from New York know about us? Does he want to come here and change our way of life?’ The answer is ‘no’. I just want to be a proud member of this community like anyone else — not better nor worse,” he said.

Mr. Hull highlighted his accomplishments as being a canine handler, being asked by his peers to be the commander of a tactical team, and expanding the department training program as well as the community policing effort.

“I have seen the need to work in partnership with the community and also on a shared and regional basis. There is no difference between the small community I am in now and that of West Tisbury,” he said.

Norman Perry, chairman of the Personnel Board, asked each of the finalists what they would do the first day on the job.

Both Mr. Hull and Mr. Pedoty said they would get to know the personnel. Mr. Pedoty said , “You don’t want to go in there like the raging bull. You have got to go in there and introduce yourself and start that gradual process” of building a relationship.

Mr. Rossi said, “On my first day as full-time chief I will breathe a sigh of relief. But it will be easier for me than these two gentlemen. It will be a seamless transition because I know all the players.”

Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi asked the two off-island finalists to describe how they would reach out to the community on the first day. “You have to go out and meet them. You have to go out there and be visible,” Mr. Hull said.

Mr. Pedoty said, “The first day you have to go out there, hand out your business cards, and let them know that you are there for them, that you are the new chief and that you mean to serve the public.”

Jonathan Revere asked the finalists their opinions regarding regionalization of police services.

Mr. Rossi said the Island tried to do this back in the ’70s.

“Do I think the towns on the Island would save money? I don’t know. You would have to show it to me on paper. A lot of people say you are going to save money by buying in bulk. I can be the first to tell you that a police jacket costs $250 if you buy one or you buy 40.” He said he would like the Island police departments to pool resources, including creating an Island-wide detective unit.

Mr. Pedoty said he was the product of a merger and, “Any time you lose that patch, the patch of your own department, I believe inadvertently you are going to lose some type of service.”

Mr. Hull said that he has been doing regional pooling of expertise and services for years. “It is a great resource,” he said.

Jim Powell, chairman of the Affordable Housing Committee, asked the candidates why they would want to live on Martha’s Vineyard.

Mr. Hull said, “I like knowing people. We do a lot of community events with lots of people, I like the feel.”

Mr. Pedoty said, “Here I feel that you can meet the small population of your town, you can get to know them and they can get to know you. That truly appeals to me.”

Dan Rossi, who has lived on the island since the age of 11, said, “I love this community, and I made a conscious choice to stay here, and it is going to be for the rest of my life.”

The Selectmen Interviews

Each finalist answered the selectmen’s questions for an hour before an audience of journalists and one resident, Mr. Wasserman, who attended for only a portion of the session.

The off-island candidates were asked how they would handle taking over a department where almost all of the department’s officers and all of the Island’s other law enforcement officials supported Acting Chief Rossi’s candidacy. Both Mr. Pedoty and Mr. Hull acknowledged that it will be a challenge.

Mr. Pedoty said, “It is a good thing that the officers and other people on the Island respect the management and supervision that is on this job. It is one less hurdle I would have.”

Mr. Hull said that Canton officials recently selected an outsider as the new police chief although he had been endorsed by his officers and town residents.

“I have been on the opposite side of that, breaking in a new chief, seeing what he had to go through, how he had to interact. It is going fine right now. And I would do the same thing here. There is always going to be that acceptance factor until you get involved in the department, involved in the community,” he said.

Mrs. Mitchell asked Mr. Rossi how his role has changed since becoming acting chief.

“They know that I am the person who is in charge and they all respect that. I am not one to be a dictator. I know that a great leader is a good listener. But I also know that when it comes down to making a command decision I can make that and stand by it. ”

Mr. Knabel asked all three candidates how they would handle having as an officer someone who is also a selectman.

Mr. Hull said, “The officer has his job to do as a police officer and his job to do as a selectman. You cannot let that influence your decisions.”

Mr. Rossi said, “It is separated, and he (Mr. Manter) keeps it well separated, and I appreciate that. If it wasn’t I would address it. To date, he has not done that. He does not exceed his authority as a selectman while he is in police uniform and I respect that.”

Mr. Knabel also asked the candidates to tell how they would handle a number of law-enforcement scenarios including finding marijuana growing on private property, driving violations, domestic violence incidents, elderly impaired drivers, unruly renters, underage drinking and substance abuse, and celebrity summer residents demanding special treatment.

Mr. Pedoty said, “In a place like this there is a lot of room for discretion when it comes to certain things. There are those times when writing a summons is the best thing to do and those times when a simple warning will suffice.”

In cases of domestic violence, the finalists agreed with Mr. Pedoty who said, “There is much less room for error, a lot less room for discretion” with the law requiring arrests.

About underage drinking and substance abuse, the candidates each made statements similar to that of Mr. Rossi who said, “Our job is to be sure that people stay safe. I feel it is better to stop something. It is better to deal with it proactively than to show up too late. Can you ever really solve it? I don’t know the answer to that. But you can try to prevent it and deter it from happening.”

The Decision

Following their special meeting, Mr. Knabel said the selectmen hoped to discuss and make a decision as soon as this week’s selectmen’s meeting (Nov. 18) or the first meeting in December. No selectmen’s meeting is expected to be held on Nov. 24.

Of the weekend interview process Mrs. Mitchell said, “I thought it worked out extremely well. It was good that the public got a chance to hear the answers to the questions that were posed to the candidates in advance.” She added, “The candidates seemed at ease, the public seemed interested and engaged.”

Mr. Knabel said,” The selection committee presented us with three very viable candidates, which reflects very much on the diligence with which they approached their charge. ”