Tisbury Police Department changes policy as Officer Mark Santon returns

Officers will no longer leave prisoners alone while they secure firearms inside the jail.

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Tisbury police officer Mark Santon arrives at Tisbury town hall Tuesday. Officer Santon has been on paid administrative leave after a woman prisoner attempted suicide in the back of a police cruiser. —Stacey Rupolo

Tisbury Officer Mark Santon is back on the job after being out on paid administrative leave, and in the aftermath, the Tisbury board of selectmen approved a change in the way the town’s police department takes prisoners to the Edgartown jail.

Officer Santon, a 25-year veteran of the force, was the subject of a closed-door disciplinary hearing before the board of selectmen on May 24. He was placed on paid leave after a female prisoner nearly choked herself to death after being left unattended in the police cruiser, according to town officials and court records.

After hearing a report by an independent investigator, the board of selectmen voted to reinstate the officer. The Times has requested a copy of the report, but has not yet received it.

Court records indicate, however, that Officer Santon left the woman in the back of the cruiser while he went into the jail to secure his weapon. When he emerged, the woman was unresponsive.

“We started a new procedure when we take someone down to the jail, when we place them under arrest, that we don’t leave them by themselves at any time,” Chief Dan Hanavan of the Tisbury Police Department told selectmen on Tuesday. “They’re always going to be in our custody.”

The Island-wide practice of bringing prisoners to the jail and leaving them unattended while the officer secures his or her firearm inside and checks in with the deputy on duty could leave a prisoner unattended for “five to 15 minutes,” selectman Tristan Israel said. Last week, Mr. Israel called it “a glaring error in protocol.”

Now, Tisbury police will secure their firearm in the trunk of the police cruiser while the prisoner remains handcuffed in the back seat. The deputy on duty will come out to the car and walk the prisoner in, and he or she will remain in someone’s custody at all times, Chief Hanavan said.

Sheriff Robert Ogden told The Times on Wednesday that he was aware of the change in procedure, and that it was up to the police department to decide how they operate. The sheriff’s department has “tightened up” its 30-year policy by making sure that a deputy goes outside to stay with a prisoner if an officer goes into the jail to secure his or her firearm, doing their “due diligence in observing the arrestee, so that there’s no time that they’re alone,” he said.

The woman who was arrested and attempted suicide told The Times last week that her arrest triggered a panic attack that caused her to black out, leaving her with no recollection of what happened while she was left in the police cruiser.

Mr. Israel told The Times last week that he believed selectmen dealt with the matter fairly, and that he was satisfied with the outcome, after a nearly four-hour hearing. “We thoroughly vetted the event and took decisive action with regard to the situation,” he said.

According to a police report from the Jan. 27 incident, Officer Santon was taking the woman to the Dukes County jail in Edgartown 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 jail, 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.

The town has been looking at the police department’s disciplinary process, as well as its policies and procedures. Selectmen approved a $19,000 contract with a consultant, Strategic Policy Partnership LLC, last August, which conducted onsite interviews and did a survey of department employees.

Strategic Policy Partnership issued its report in January, with one of the topics brought up being discipline of officers by the administration. 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.

Chief Hanavan and other members of the department meet weekly to discuss implementing the recommendations of the report, and the consultant will continue to provide assistance as the department looks to create new policies and procedures, according to town administrator Jay Grande.

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,” Mr. Grande said.

The procedural change in transporting prisoners is one of the first to be implemented, and selectmen called for further education and community outreach with regard to women and immigrants on Tuesday.

Chief Hanavan noted that there are two women on the police department. “I think the department is proactive,” he said.