Woman breaks silence, and officer faces hearing

Consultant raised issues with how police department disciplines officers in January report.

Officer Mark Santon enters the Tisbury town hall for a disciplinary hearing before the board of selectmen on May 24 where he was reinstated after being on paid administrative leave for 11 weeks. —Stacey Rupolo

The woman who was arrested and attempted suicide while a Tisbury police officer was inside the Dukes County jail is saying her arrest triggered a panic attack that caused her to black out.

The 41-year-old mother of two met with The Times Wednesday along with her attorney, Paulo Moura, an immigration and criminal defense attorney who provided translation.

Mr. Moura explained the woman has experienced recent trauma, and that her arrest triggered a panic attack about a quarter of a mile from the jail. She said she “blacked out” and woke up in the hospital, with no memory of how long she was left unattended or what happened in the police cruiser.

According to a police report from the Jan. 27 incident, Tisbury Officer Mark Santon was taking the woman to the police department after she was arrested on a charge of unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, following a car accident near the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal. The woman produced a Brazilian passport instead of a driver’s license at the accident scene, according to the report.

While Officer Santon was inside the Dukes County jail in Edgartown, the woman wiggled out of one of her handcuffs and wrapped a string from a hooded sweatshirt around her neck, according to the police report. When Officer Santon and a sheriff’s deputy emerged from the jail to transfer her into county custody, they found the woman unconscious and without a pulse. She was revived and taken to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.

Last night, Officer Santon was the subject of a closed-door disciplinary hearing before the board of selectmen related to the incident.

Within the past year, the woman was a victim of domestic violence involving her husband, Mr. Moura said. The couple was married for 13 years, but now she has a restraining order against him. When the woman was arrested, she was with her two children — one an adult and the other a child — who were left as she was taken into custody. Five years ago, her 2-month-old child died after being left with a babysitter, a case that never was resolved. A prayer card with a picture of the infant was tucked in her passport, which she showed to The Times on Wednesday.

“It calls into question persons who may have mental health issues triggered by arrest for nonviolent cases, especially if there’s cooperation on their end, and no party — maybe property was damaged — but no party was actually hurt or injured,” Mr. Moura said.

Mr. Moura said the officer could have issued a summons instead of taking her into custody. The officer didn’t witness the vehicle in motion, and she could have been permitted to call someone with a driver’s license who could drive the car away, since her children were there, she was cooperating, provided insurance information, and was not evading the police officer.

“That was a judgment call on the part of the police officer,” Mr. Moura said.

The woman said she wanted to set the record straight and put the incident behind her. She is not pursuing any legal action against the Tisbury Police Department. She thanked the police, the EMTs, and the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital for helping her.

Her charges were dismissed on March 30.

Hours after the woman spoke about the incident for the first time, Officer Mark Santon, the arresting officer that night, was before selectmen.

Officer Santon answered a knock at his door Monday, but declined to speak to The Times, citing his pending hearing. It is Santon’s prerogative to have the hearing in executive session under the Open Meeting Law, because his conduct and character were to be discussed.

He has been on paid administrative leave from the $83,928-per-year job for about 11 weeks while the department conducted an investigation into the incident.

Town administrator Jay Grande recently told The Times that the internal investigation report would not be released publicly until after the hearing.

At a separate selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, Shari Geistfeld of We Stand Together told the board that the organization had reached out to Cape and Islands First Assistant District Attorney Michael Trudeau to raise questions about the policies and procedures of taking women prisoners to the Edgartown jail. Trudeau responded to the group saying those issues should be raised with the town department, Ms. Geistfeld said.

“We are confused by the months-long silence from local law enforcement and the board of selectmen,” Ms. Geistfeld said.

Larry Gomez, Tisbury selectmen chairman, said they are taking it very seriously, and admitted that town leaders have been very busy, and “there are a lot of things that fall through the cracks.”

“We all need to be reminded of doing things,” Mr. Gomez said.


Police under a microscope

The Tisbury Police Department underwent a review by a consultant, Strategic Policy Partnership LLC, which conducted onsite interviews and did a survey of department employees. Selectmen awarded the $19,000 contract for the external review in August. Strategic Policy Partnership issued its report in January, with one of the topics brought up being discipline of officers by the administration.

The Tisbury board of selectmen met Thursday, Feb. 16, at 2 pm in the Emergency Services Facility to discuss the assessment with Police Chief Daniel Hanavan. Although the meeting was open to the public and the agenda is stamped as received on Feb. 13, it was not posted on the town website. After requests to the town clerk’s office and selectmen’s office, Mr. Grande provided the minutes to The Times on Wednesday. The board’s regularly scheduled meetings are the first and third Tuesday of each month around 4 or 5 pm at the Katharine Cornell Theater.

Mr. Grande attributed the breach in protocol to staffing issues, and said he was not responsible for posting the minutes.

The report details an atmosphere at the department of officers fearful of being disciplined.

According to the report, officers find the department’s discipline process to be harsh and unwarranted. There is a “persistent perception that the administration has used the disciplinary system to force employees out of the department,” the report states. That perception is shared by employees who have been disciplined, and even officers who have not been the focus of discipline, the report states. Officers described a process of being notified by a “white envelope” in a mailbox about discipline. “Regardless of whether the disciplinary action was warranted, this seemed to violate the fundamental intent of the disciplinary system’s intent,” the report states.

Using discipline to punish, rather than correct, behaviors has contributed to ongoing tension, the report states. “Officers seem to be fearful of the consequences that may result in any infraction deviating from the established procedures,” the report states.

The consultants recommended changing the discipline process from being focused on punitive measures to more corrective by revamping the discipline process, using alternative methods, and instituting progressive counseling. “The preferred method for correcting typical errant behavior or mistakes is through a systematic method of counseling and retraining,” the report states.

The report also outlined ongoing issues with communication in the department between administration and rank-and-file police officers.

“Although certain officers felt comfortable approaching the chief and executive officer, most did not share the same comfort level,” the report states. “Many of those who did approach them often walked away thinking their recommendations had been rebuffed or ignored.”

The report concludes that overall communication in the department could be improved by putting in a process for day-to-day interaction, by having a more formal handoff process, and by having officers report directly to a specified supervisor, even if they’re not on the same shift, for continuity.

Officers also brought up perceived inequalities in how transparent the department is in promoting officers to administrative positions, as well as issues with a lack of training.

There were positives in the report. “It was evident that the vast majority of officers had a true commitment to the town of Tisbury and a commitment to their profession,” the report states.

Selectman Gomez told The Times on Monday that it was a thorough report, and now it’s a matter of implementation.

“I’ve said, even before I was a selectmen, that this is something we should do periodically,” Mr. Gomez said of the report. “Maybe every three to five years, as opposed to when something comes up and there are a lot of grievances out there.”

Mr. Grande told The Times on Tuesday that Chief Hanavan and other members of the department meet weekly to discuss implementing the recommendations, and the consultant will continue to provide assistance as the department looks to create new policies and procedures.

“The assessment really gave an eye to the future,” Mr. Grande said. Revising the disciplinary process is a top priority, and the department aims to implement a new policy by July, ensuring a “fair and equitable environment,” and one that doesn’t create “a cycle of negativity,” he said.