Editorial : A police matter
Tisbury voters and taxpayers will certainly ask why the Tisbury Police Department has such an unsettled management record. They should ask, and keep on asking. After all, the town has employed three police chiefs, not to mention the various interim and temporary chiefs that covered the interregnums, in less than a decade. And this in a town whose policing demands are, on the whole, modest, according to a 2001 review of the department by outside consultant Robert Wasserman. And besides, Tisbury's police turmoil stands before the backdrop of an Island whose five other towns make what amount to career-long commitments to their chiefs - witness Chilmark, whose chief of 30 years will retire in a month, with the warmly expressed and broadly based gratitude of his employers for his long service.
Although Tisbury's experience has been uncommon, when compared with the practice and records in the other towns, Tisbury's police troubles over the decade have several common characteristics. At least two of the chiefs have had difficult and persistent conflicts with some of their officers. In the tenure of two of the three chiefs, complaints by officers, unresolved within the department and unresolved by the town selectmen, have resulted in complaints to the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination. The first of these cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars to conclude, and the second, if the outcome is favorable to the town, will be expensive as well. Add to all this the habitually difficult working relationships between the town selectmen and their chiefs, all complicated and at times contentious, especially this last one involving the departing Chief John Cashin, who let fly in newspaper interviews and has now left the job.
The selectmen have wisely turned to Wasserman's consultancy once again to review the police department's management and operations, diagnose the problems, and make recommendations for treatment. Still, the real question, the one voters and taxpayers must ask, is, Will the selectmen be wise enough and frank enough to ask for a thorough examination of their own performance as police commissioners? After all, no matter whose heads have rolled over the course of this long, sad history, the selectmen are ultimately responsible.
The selectmen are responsible for hiring sound police managers. They are responsible for allowing their selected managers to do their jobs, without interference from the selectmen. They are responsible for demanding that problems between the chief and his officers be recognized and attended to by the chief, promptly and fairly. They are responsible for avoiding the sort of overbearing management that Tisbury selectmen are uniquely fond of practicing over town departments. Witness the Tuesday meeting nonsense, got up for the benefit of the MVTV cameras, when all the department heads, who would be better off at work at their town jobs, are required to be present and to make oral reports to the selectmen, permitting the executives to insert themselves into each department's affairs. These are reports that might be written and delivered to the executive secretary, who, rather than merely heaping every insignificant question on the weekly agenda, ought to make countless municipal decisions each day and choose the few issues that deserve the selectmen's unforgivably windy attention. The town and the tortured police department would be improved by a trio of selectmen who acted as executives, demanded performance from their subordinates, and led by attending to strategic rather than tactical, even miniscule issues that are better left to the people the town employs to attend to them.