Tisbury selectmen fire police officer Sgt. Robert Fiske
File photo by Ralph Stewart
Tisbury selectmen fired veteran Tisbury police Sgt. Robert Fiske on November 2. The unanimous vote in executive session last Wednesday followed a marathon meeting behind closed doors that began at noon in town hall and lasted past 6 pm.
On Monday, Mr. Fiske went to the Tisbury Police station to turn in his equipment and clean out his locker.
Sergeant Fiske had been on paid administrative leave since August 1, pending the conclusion of an internal investigation and review of his actions on July 23, 2011.
Sergeant Fiske was the officer in charge that night when police responded to a report of a domestic assault by a husband on his wife at a house on Spring Street in Vineyard Haven.
Police transported the woman to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, but left a live-in babysitter alone in the house with the couple's three children, while officers, including Sgt. Fiske, searched for the husband, who returned to the house while the police were gone and raped the girl, according to police reports.
Tisbury selectmen and town administrator John Bugbee refused at first to comment on the decision or even confirm their decision.
Lawyers with the Boston law firm of Kopelman & Paige, the town's counsel, conducted the investigation into Sergeant Fiske's actions that night and are advising the town on the termination.
Pressed for comment in a telephone call Friday afternoon, Mr. Bugbee said the town's lawyer had instructed town officials to say nothing until the matter has been resolved, because of the possibility of future litigation. Asked if that could take months, during which time taxpayers would be kept in the dark regarding the details of the selectmen's decision, Mr. Bugbee, who is the town's personnel manager, said it was a possibility.
Asked for comment Friday afternoon, Geoghan Coogan, chairman of the selectmen and a practicing lawyer, said in an email to The Times, "As you are aware, Sgt. Fiske has been the subject of a disciplinary hearing with the town of Tisbury. Sgt. Fiske is no longer on paid administrative leave, but this remains an internal personnel matter until all proceedings are finalized. Until that time, the town will have no further comment on this issue."
Following consultation with the town's lawyer, Mr. Bugbee emailed a statement to The Times late Friday confirming Mr. Fiske's dismissal.
"After lengthy review and consideration by the board of selectmen, the board decided to terminate Sgt. Fiske from his employment with the town of Tisbury," Mr. Bugbee said. "Due to the fact that we don't know if or in what manner Mr. Fiske may choose to appeal the board of selectmen's decision, it would be premature for me to comment substantively on the matter, as it may not be fully concluded."
Tisbury Police Chief Dan Hanavan attended the Wednesday meeting. In a telephone conversation Monday, Chief Hanavan said, "I decline to comment and would refer any questions about the matter to town administrator John Bugbee."
Contacted Friday, Mr. Fiske declined comment.
Lawyer John M. Becker of the Boston firm of Sandulli Grace represented Mr. Fiske. Mr. Becker did not return a telephone message from The Times.
Officer Michael Gately, who attended the meeting in his capacity as union shop steward, said he could not comment at this time.
When Sergeant Fiske, a respected 16-year veteran of the police department, Officer Michael Gately and Officer Scott Ogden arrived at 194 West Spring Street late on July 23, Erika Thrift said that her husband, David Thrift, 29, had assaulted her after she walked into the room used by the Thrifts' 15-year-old babysitter.
She told police she found her husband hovering over the girl, as the family's three young children slept on a pullout couch in the living room. Ms. Thrift said she thought she saw her husband sexually molesting the girl.
The babysitter reported that she awoke with Mr. Thrift on top of her. "The juvenile female stated that she was afraid to scream so as not to wake the children," according to Mr. Fiske's report.
Mr. Thrift ran from the house when police arrived. Mrs. Thrift was transported to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.
In his police report, Sergeant Fiske wrote, "Officer Gately received information that the juvenile female was possibly the victim of a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault by David [Thrift] prior to his altercation with Erica [Thrift]."
Officer Gately left the scene to assist Mrs. Thrift in obtaining a restraining order, as Sergeant Fiske and Officer Scott Ogden searched the surrounding area for Mr. Thrift.
The babysitter, a cousin who had come from Arkansas with the family for the summer, "stated that she was comfortable to stay with Erica's three children while Erica was treated at the hospital," Mr. Fiske wrote in his report of that night.
The babysitter put the children to bed, sat in a chair and armed herself with a kitchen knife.
Unable to find Mr. Thrift, Sergeant Fiske and officer Ogden returned to the police station house. Mr. Thrift returned to his house.
There, the babysitter, who has not been identified by police, was on a cell phone speaking to her boyfriend in Arkansas when Mr. Thrift burst in through a rear door, according to the police report.
"The juvenile female stated David took the knife from her, threw her phone across the room, and grabbed her by the throat," according to Mr. Fiske's report. He told her he would slit her throat and kill her if she screamed or called police, even as his eight-year-old watched the attack. He then raped her, according to the report.
The babysitter's boyfriend in Arkansas heard the commotion over the phone and alerted his mother to what was occurring in Massachusetts, according to police.
Through a series of relayed 911 calls that began with a dispatcher in Arkansas, Tisbury police were alerted and returned to the house where they arrested Mr. Thrift.
On September 7, Mr. Thrift was arraigned in Dukes County Superior Court on a 10-count indictment charging him with rape of a child with force, aggravated rape, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault with a dangerous weapon, three charges of assault, two charges of intimidation of a witness, and violation of a restraining order. He remains in custody at the Dukes County Jail.
Standard police procedures and laws governing sexual assault investigations require police to do everything possible to protect victims of sexual assault, according to one knowledgeable police source.
A long career
Sergeant Fiske began his career with the Tisbury Police Department as a summer special officer in 1988, doing foot patrols on Main Street and directing traffic at the Steamship Authority Terminal. He was hired as a police officer in 1995, and the town paid for his training at the police academy.
In addition to his regular duties, Sergeant Fiske has served as a member of the Tisbury Police Union negotiating team in contract negotiations with the town. In April 2010, Chief Hanavan selected him to spearhead a project to develop a policy and procedure manual for the Tisbury Police Department.
Sergeant Fiske helped to prepare Tisbury's written guidelines for sexual assault and domestic violence investigations.
The Times filed a public records request for copies of those procedures. The 23-page domestic violence guidelines provide, in part, "Officers must be alert and impartial and must be concerned with the needs of the victims where domestic violence is apparent or alleged. At the same time, officers must always anticipate the unexpected."
The definitions of abuse include: attempting to cause or causing physical harm; placing another in fear of imminent physical harm; or causing another to engage involuntarily in sexual relations by force, threat, or force or duress."
The procedures that officers follow in domestic violence cases are established by law. "Whenever any law officer has reason to believe that a family of household member has been abused, such officer shall use all reasonable means to prevent further abuse."
The guidelines instruct officers to remain on the scene where the abuse has occurred "as long as the officer has reason to believe that at least one of the parties involved would be in immediate physical danger without the presence of a law officer."
The guidelines further state, "Where children are present at a domestic dispute, their welfare and safety must be a major consideration."