Our story on Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain and how the Tisbury Police Department responded to an incident where he was found drunk, inside a neighbor’s home, after 3 am has prompted a big response on social media and in our comments section. Some questions have been raised by you, our readers, so we thought we’d use this space to respond.
This happened four months ago; why now?
It was hidden from public view. No official police report was ever made, and thus, his name was never included in an official report. In a subsequent report, after the homeowners found the chief’s keys in the daylight on their deck and turned them in to Tisbury police, his name was omitted because the day-shift officers could find no record of a disturbance at the Spring Street house the night before. The story only came to light because it had been making the rounds through the rumor mill, and we asked for “any and all documents” having to do with a March 31 incident on Spring Street. That’s how we got the internal memo between a sergeant and Chief Daniel Hanavan, the only written evidence that it occurred that included Belain’s name.
He took a taxi home. He did the right thing. Why is this a story?
The story makes it clear that Chief Belain was not treated the same as anyone else would have been in the same situation. It’s about the special treatment, yes, but it is also about Chief Belain being in such a state that he needed a taxicab ride home and he couldn’t find the correct house. Remember, the story of the taxi driver is not clear. The homeowners say the taxi driver told them the next day he led Chief Belain to the wrong door as he attempted to return the chief’s credit card. Chief Belain told Tisbury Police he was dropped at the Tisbury School and walked into the wrong house. Also, how he got into the taxi is unclear. Did he call one, did a friend call one, or did the establishment he was in call one? These are questions we had hoped to ask Chief Belain in the follow-up interview, but he never responded to subsequent messages after asking for time to read the Tisbury Police memo about that night.
Why is that important?
Well, it is against the law for a restaurant or bar to overserve a patron. It can result in fines or, ultimately, the revocation of a liquor license. According to the Massachusetts Alcohol Beverages Control Commission, as many as 20 percent of all alcohol-related accidents involve an intoxicated pedestrian. It’s also a violation of a bar’s license to serve patrons after hours. Chief Belain told Tisbury Police he was in Oak Bluffs, which is a short drive from Vineyard Haven, certainly not two hours away. Chief Belain entered the home after 3 am, and most bars are required to close at 1 am. More important, the public and Chief Belain’s bosses will have to decide if it’s OK for a chief, the town’s top law enforcement officer, to get so drunk that he couldn’t have possibly responded to an emergency that night. “A police chief can’t go out and get inebriated to the extent he or she can’t pass judgment,” a former police chief who still works in a leadership role told The Times. He pointed to the recent shooting of two police officers in Falmouth, where a police chief needed to be ready to lead his officers in tactics and deployment. Perhaps Chief Belain made a contingency plan, given that he was celebrating his birthday. That’s another question we had hoped to ask him.
Who tipped off the newspaper?
We’re not sure why this matters in the least. We get tips all the time that we check, that don’t pan out for one reason or another. In this case, the anonymous tip we initially received was way off-base. The person told us the incident happened just a few days before, in early July. Through asking others if they heard about it, we were able to narrow it down and put in a public-records request to confirm that it happened, and how it was handled.
Isn’t this more about Tisbury Police covering it up?
That is certainly a big part of this. As the retired off-Island police chief we contacted said, Tisbury officers did the right thing that night by not letting the chief go home alone, and making sure he was with people who would watch him. Where there is an “aroma,” as he put it, is the lack of documentation. Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande says he’s reviewing the case closely.
But the chief’s a nice guy and you’ve ruined his life. What were you thinking?
Nobody’s life is ruined. People make mistakes all the time, and it’s how they respond to those mistakes that decides how things are handled moving forward. We can’t decide whether to cover a story based on whether someone is a nice guy. We’ve had great interactions with Chief Belain through the years, and have always appreciated that. But we can’t pick and choose what it is that we investigate and report on. It’s also our job as a community newspaper to find out things that have happened that we should know about. We report on them, and then it’s up to the community to determine the importance they take on.
What if someone was just trying to sabotage Chief Belain’s application for Tisbury chief?
We have no evidence that he was or is a candidate, but if he was, that doesn’t change what happened, or how it was handled. And as one of our commenters so aptly put it, “Tisbury would then have a situation where the head of the police department was beholden to a few of his officers for the ‘favor’ they did for him by omitting his name from the report of a very embarrassing and potentially career-ending incident.” That’s not a good situation for the chief or a town that’s trying to move away from some of the issues it’s had with the police department.
There were other points in the online comments that were easy to ignore because they were obviously made without reading the story — like the person who wrote that Belain’s photo shouldn’t have been splashed on the front page of the newspaper. Well, the news broke Friday, and we’re a Thursday paper, so it hadn’t even made print yet.
But we do take comments seriously, and we do read them. With any sensitive story, we evaluate the possible repercussions to reporting on it. In this case, we weighed it all, and it was an easy call to do our job.
One of the Island’s top law enforcement officials got preferential treatment from another Island police department. That should never happen, and it certainly should never be condoned, but when it does, we’ll take our responsibility seriously to investigate and to report the facts once we verify them.