Off duty does not mean off standard for Island police

— File photo by Ralph Stewart

Police chiefs across Martha’s Vineyard say they hold their police officers to a higher standard of legal, moral, and ethical conduct than the citizens they police, whether the officer is on, or off duty.

“When you take the job, you know you’re held to a higher standard,” Edgartown police Chief Tony Bettencourt said. “You know you’re in the public eye. We’re a small island. Even when you’re not working, you’re working, everywhere you go.”

“When you choose to take the job as a cop, you’re saying I’m going to live my life a certain way,” Chilmark police Chief Brian Cioffi said. “People in our community are supposed to trust us, they are supposed to believe in us. We stand between what’s good and what’s bad. If we’re acting bad, how do you go around and say you can’t do that, but I can? You’re expected to abide by the same laws you are enforcing.”

Recently, in questions, phone calls, and social media comments, Island residents expressed a wide range of opinion about the off-duty behavior of local police officers. The issue was raised publicly following an incident at a December 15 performance of male exotic dancers at the Dreamland nightclub in Oak Bluffs. Widely circulated videos and pictures show off-duty Tisbury police officer Kelly Kershaw as she partially disrobed and joined a male dancer on stage before hundreds of people at the nightclub. Ms. Kershaw was also on medical leave at the time.

In response to a news report in The Times, Tisbury selectmen said the town is addressing that incident through the police department’s disciplinary procedures, and following the advice of their labor attorney. The board, which acts as police commissioners, has not taken any action to date.

Some online commentors took the view that what an off-duty police officer does is his or her business. A number of commentors questioned whether towns respond appropriately to misconduct involving police officers. One caller to The Times, without offering specifics, said that police officers sometimes shield other officers from arrest or punishment.

Polices and procedures

Most police departments have clear written policies that define expectations for off-duty behavior, and written disciplinary procedures for those who violate the policies.

“Police officers are professionals, and as such, are expected to maintain exceptionally high standards in the performance of their duty while conducting themselves at all times, both on and off duty, in such a manner as to reflect favorably upon themselves and the department,” according to the Oak Bluffs police department policy on professional conduct and responsibilities. “Public scrutiny, and sometimes public criticism, is directed not only at police performance but also at the behavior, both on and off duty, of those who deliver police services.”

Most police departments in Massachusetts use similar, or identical language in their own policy manuals.

The “conduct unbecoming an officer” clause in most policy manuals is broadly written, and gives the governing authority wide discretion. The policy makes clear that officers are held to a higher standard.

“Such a catch-all rule would not be proper for regulating the conduct of the general public,” the Oak Bluffs manual reads. “However, over the years, police officers have come to understand that certain behavior is clearly not in keeping with good order and proper operation of the department.

“It is fair to say that conduct unbecoming an officer would be such as would alert a reasonable officer that his or her conduct under the circumstances would be inappropriate. Both on and off-duty conduct may subject an officer to a charge of conduct unbecoming an officer. Officers do not sever their relationship with the department at the end of their shift.”

In the know

Island police chiefs say their officers are well aware of the policy, and reinforce it regularly.

“They drill that into your head at the (police) academy, ad nauseum,” Chief Cioffi said.

Police chiefs say they take extra care to make sure special officers and summer officers know the rules.””That’s one of our major speeches,” Chief Blake said. “You’re here for 12 weeks, we’re here year-round. What you do reflects on us.”

“They’re younger, they want to have fun,” Chief Cioffi said. “I always tell them, this is the beginning of your career. If you’re going to choose to be reckless and do immature things, it’s going to affect you in the long term.”

Chief Bettencourt said the Edgartown police department gives special and summer officers little slack when it comes to off-duty behavior. “We pretty much have a zero tolerance with them,” he said.

Discipline on the line

Police officers are not immune to bad behavior. When it happens, police chiefs turn to their written procedures for disciplinary action. There is discretion in how each department handles complaints.

“It’s supposed to be progressive discipline,” Tisbury Chief Dan Hanavan said. “It’s a verbal warning, then a written warning, the third time can be a suspension, a short suspension or a long suspension. It could go all the way to termination. If we see a weakness in an officer’s behavior, we might send them to a training center, or assist them in getting some help in addressing the problem.”

Island police chiefs say they often deal with perception, rumor, and innuendo.

“Usually by the time it’s spun back to me, it may not be true, but that’s what’s in people’s heads,” Chief Blake said. He said he follows department procedures whenever a complaint is reported, he decides whether the complaint is sustained, or not sustained, in the language of the policy manual. He cautions that it takes more than a rumor before he can take action.

“Which doesn’t mean nothing happened,” Chief Blake said. “It just means you can’t prove it. Unless there is video or audio, and if there is no other history, if you can’t prove it actually happened, it has to be not sustained.”