Arbitrator rules Tisbury was justified in firing Sgt. Fiske
File photo by Ralph Stewart
In a decision released Friday, October 12, arbitrator Richard Boulanger said the town of Tisbury was justified when it fired police Sergeant Robert Fiske for not following police department policy on the night of July 23, 2011, when a teenage babysitter, left alone in a house, was raped by a violent man who was the object of a police search.
Sergeant Fiske was the officer in charge that night when he and Officers Michael Gately and Scott Ogden responded to a report of a domestic assault by a husband, David Thrift, on his now ex-wife, Erika, at a house on Spring Street in Vineyard Haven.
While police searched for Mr. Thrift after he assaulted his wife, he returned to the house and raped a live-in babysitter, left alone in the house with the couple's three children.
About a week after the incident, on August 1, 2011, Sergeant Fiske was placed on paid administrative leave. The Tisbury selectmen fired Sergeant Fiske on November 2, 2011, following an internal investigation and review of his actions.
Lawyers with the Boston law firm of Kopelman & Paige, the town's counsel, conducted the investigation into his actions that night and advised the town on his termination.
Lawyer John M. Becker of the Boston firm of Sandulli Grace represented Mr. Fiske. Sergeant Fiske appealed the town's decision to fire him.
Mr. Thrift pleaded guilty October 3 in Dukes County Superior Court to a total of seven criminal charges, including rape of a child under 16 by force, and rape of a child under 16, aggravated by age difference greater than 10 years. He also pleaded guilty to intimidating a victim, assault and battery, and violating a restraining order.
He was ordered to serve 10 to 13 years in Walpole State Penitentiary.
In a one-page summary of his decision, Mr. Boulanger wrote that Sergeant Fiske, a 20-year member of the police force, was terminated in October 2011 for failing to comply with police department domestic violence and sexual assault policies.
"The town contends that the grievant's July 23, 2011 and July 24, 2011 failures to implement Departmental Policies and Procedures, which he authored, allowed the endangerment of individuals he was sworn to protect, justifying his termination," the arbitrator wrote.
"The union argues that the town did not have just cause to discharge the grievant because he acted appropriately on July 23, 2011 and July 24, 2011 based on his information, training, and experience.
Mr. Boulanger ruled that the town had just cause to terminate Mr. Fiske based on his "failure to implement departmental policies."
In his report, Mr. Boulanger said that given Mr. Thrift's prior history, Sergeant Fiske should not have allowed the teenage babysitter to babysit minors without a police presence while Mr. Thrift was at large and could return, "particularly a babysitter who David [Thrift] had earlier sexually assaulted."
In a written statement provided to The Times, selectmen commented on the decision to terminate Mr. Fiske.
"The decision to terminate Sgt. Fiske was a difficult one, but the board felt compelled to do so, given all of the circumstances," Tisbury selectman said in a statement issued late Friday afternoon. "While the board takes no pleasure in the circumstances surrounding Sgt. Fiske's termination, it is gratified that a neutral, independent party has concluded that the board's decision was justified, after a review of all the evidence."
"I am certainly glad that the arbitrator upheld the town's action in this very regrettable case," Tristan Israel, chairman of the board of selectman told The Times in a telephone call Friday afternoon. "It is unfortunate all the way around."
Mr. Fiske's lawyer, John M. Becker, said he and his client were very disappointed but would abide by the decision.
"Sgt. Fiske has served the people of Tisbury for 20 years, with no problems," Mr. Becker said in a telephone conversation with The Times on Friday. "This was a single incident in which he used his judgment and training and experience to make a decision, and the arbitrator concluded the decision was not the best decision, and we disagree with that.
"But that is the arbitrator's ruling, and the parties have agreed in collective bargaining that it is final and binding. We're not going to appeal it, but we are disappointed. I think it's a great loss for Sergeant Fiske and also for people of Tisbury. He was a dedicated and good experienced public servant. This is a big blow."
Mr. Becker said state law allows appeal of arbitration awards, "but it's set up so the courts are very deferential to the arbitrators because they want to dissuade parties from appealing. The courts want parties to work things out at the arbitration level. We've agreed to be bound by the arbitrator's decision and will abide by it but doesn't mean we agree with it or aren't disappointed in it."
Mr. Becker said arbitrator Boulanger is a respected arbitrator. "We will accept his decision, but we're not happy. It's a devastating blow, I think, for Sergeant Fiske and his family."
Tisbury town administrator John Bugbee explained the arbitration process in a phone conversation with The Times Friday. Mr. Bugbee, who also serves as the town's personnel manager, said the collective bargaining contract between Tisbury and the Tisbury Police Union includes a grievance process before him and the Tisbury selectmen. If the outcome is not to the employee's satisfaction, the next step is to file an appeal with the American Arbitration Association (AAA).
The AAA sent a list of three to five names of arbitrators to both parties, Sergeant Fiske and town officials, from which they mutually agreed on Richard Boulanger. The arbitration process involved a series of hearings similar to court hearings, Mr. Bugbee said, in which Mr. Boulanger, as the arbitrator, served a role similar to that of a judge.
Each side provided witnesses, submitted briefs, and made closing arguments. It was left to Mr. Boulanger to make the final decision on whether or not the town acted appropriately and justifiably.
Officer in charge
According to testimony presented at Mr. Thrift's trial in Dukes County Superior Court and the police report fo the incident, Mr. Thrift, his then-wife Erika Johnson Thrift, and their three young children were living in Vineyard Haven, having moved from their native Arkansas. A teenaged relative of Ms. Thrift was living with them as a baby-sitter.
After a day at the beach the family had come home to eat dinner, watch a movie, and go to bed. The teenager, 15 at the time, awoke to find herself naked from the waist down with David Thrift performing oral sex on her.
One of the children who had been sleeping nearby alerted Ms. Thrift, telling her the baby sitter was crying or sick. Finding Mr. Thrift assaulting the teenager, Ms. Thrift pulled him away, at which point he assaulted, beat, and threatened her, saying if she called police he would kill her.
Meanwhile, one of the children called 911, and the teen-aged relative joined in on the emergency call. But Mr. Thrift took the phone from them and misled police by telling them there was a disturbance at an address far from the actual location of his house, at the other end of the Island.
Mr. Thrift ran from the house when police arrived. Ms. Thrift was transported to the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. Officer Gately left the scene to assist Ms. Thrift in obtaining a restraining order, as Sergeant Fiske and Officer Scott Ogden searched the surrounding area for Mr. Thrift.
Unable to find Mr. Thrift, Sergeant Fiske said in his report that the babysitter said she was comfortable staying with the children while their mother was treated at the hospital. He and Officer Ogden returned to the police station house.
The teen-aged baby sitter made cell phone calls to her mother and a teenaged friend in Arkansas, her home state, recounting the events of the night. She also called 911, reporting that she was scared and had armed herself with a knife, fearing that the defendant would return. The cell phone call ended abruptly with the teenager screaming.
The teenager was able to again call her friend in Arkansas, who heard Mr. Thrift say, "Shut up, or I will stab you in the neck," before the call ended. He then raped the girl while his three young daughters witnessed the assault.
Meanwhile, the teen friend and his mother in Arkansas called their local sheriff's department. Law enforcement personnel there were able to alert the Tisbury Police Department. Officers returned to the Tisbury house where they arrested Mr. Thrift.
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 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 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."