When an independent investigator uses words like “neglect of duties” and “flawed practice,” it’s something you might expect him to write about a young police officer just out of the academy.
But the words written by retired Police Chief Arthur Parker, an independent investigator hired by the town, are so stunning because they were written about Officer Mark Santon, a 25-year veteran of the Tisbury Police Department.
Officer Santon was under investigation because a woman prisoner he had taken to Dukes County jail in Edgartown attempted suicide while unattended in his cruiser.
After reading Mr. Parker’s exhaustive report, we are confused by the outcome of the disciplinary hearing before the Tisbury board of selectmen. We’d love answers, but the elected officials, who act as the town’s police commissioners, have remained mostly quiet.
Selectman Tristan Israel said after the hearing the board acted fairly, and chairman Larry Gomez said he reluctantly voted to reinstate Officer Santon. Board member Melinda Loberg says the public is just going to have to trust that the board has more information that it can’t share publicly.
In his report, Mr. Parker alleges that Officer Santon was untruthful on several occasions during his investigation — about whether he was asked by a sheriff’s deputy if his prisoner was OK being left alone, because of previous suicide concerns; about how long the prisoner was left alone; and about reporting the woman’s attempted suicide to his supervisor.
The board voted behind closed doors to reinstate the police officer, despite having a report before them that said he was negligent in leaving a female prisoner in the back of his cruiser for 13 minutes, 9 seconds, while she wiggled out of one of her handcuffs and attempted suicide by wrapping the cord of her hooded sweatshirt around her neck. She came close to doing it. She had no pulse when Officer Santon and a sheriff’s deputy arrived to bring her into the jail booking room.
It’s disturbing that Officer Santon used his cell phone to call a fellow police officer that night. We don’t know who, because that officer’s name is redacted from the report, but we do know it wasn’t his supervisor — a breach of department protocol and, frankly, common sense.
It gives the appearance that he was already attempting to cover his tracks.
Almost as stunning as the board of selectmen’s decision to reinstate Officer Santon after what amounts to a three-month paid vacation is the board’s refusal to discuss why it came to the conclusion it did.
The board had every right to fire Officer Santon based on the report it had before them by an independent investigator, a respected off-Island retired police chief with no dog in the fight, and a long and distinguished career in his rearview mirror.
There is a Supreme Judicial Court ruling that upholds a city and town’s right to fire a dishonest police officer. The case, City of Boston v. Boston Patrolmen’s Association, is about falsifying an arrest, but takes direct aim at the importance of the integrity required for a police officer.
“A police officer who uses his position of authority to make false arrests and to file false charges, and then shrouds his own misconduct in an extended web of lies and perjured testimony, corrodes the public’s confidence in its police force,” the decision states. “There is no dearth of positive law expressing the Legislature’s strong instruction that such individuals not be entrusted with the formidable authority of police officers.”
It’s clear why you want officers to have the highest integrity. They carry guns, and their investigations need to be trusted because they have the ability to change lives.
The most recent incident would be stunning by itself if this was the first time Officer Santon had been caught being untruthful or pushing the envelope of integrity. It’s not.
In 2015, Officer Santon was suspended for two days by the police chief. In one instance, he passed on a fabricated story about a department supervisor, claiming the supervisor had a domestic incident with his wife at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. That’s a serious charge. The story included details that the alleged altercation was in the presence of West Tisbury police officers who did nothing, even though they witnessed a criminal offense. It turned out to be fabricated.
Passing around that story without a shred of evidence hurt the integrity of his own department, as well as one in a neighboring town.
As a result of that same investigative report, Officer Santon was suspended for a second day for manipulating a department laptop before he turned it in. Apparently stung by his demotion from detective, the laptop’s last known user was ‘disapointed’ (with one ‘p’), and the default language for the keyboard had been switched to Estonian.
That’s a sophomoric prank, but there are more troubling incidents. In a separate incident, Officer Santon called out his own colleagues, saying they conducted a “false arrest,” when really what happened is that the district attorney’s office suggested an alternative charge in the case. In another case where he showed questionable judgment, Officer Santon was counseled for spending time socially with a woman in a case in which he was the investigating officer.
None of this was a secret to board members when they considered the latest allegations against Officer Santon, Mr. Gomez, chairman of the board of selectmen, told The Times.
Mr. Gomez said he wasn’t comfortable, but went ahead and voted with the majority anyway.
The impression this all leaves is that Officer Santon has a better relationship with selectmen than he has with the truth. The impression it leaves in the department is that Officer Santon is untouchable.
What did selectmen hear behind closed doors that made them vote the way they did? What did Officer Santon and his representatives say to counter the overwhelming evidence before the board? How did board members rationalize his past incidents of discipline with the new allegations? Did they not see a troubling pattern?
As elected officials, they owe it town residents, their Island neighbors, and the other officers of the Tisbury Police Department who have been cast in a bad light to answer those questions.