Tisbury consultant cites police improvement, charts course to merger


In a two-part report completed in May, Robert Wasserman’s Strategic Policy Partnership awards the Tisbury police department and Chief Dan Hanavan high marks for recent organizational and leadership improvements and offers a blueprint for considering a merger of police responsibilities with Oak Bluffs.

The Tisbury selectmen had engaged Mr. Wasserman, who has advised the board on police issues before, to help them decide whether to promote Mr. Hanavan from acting chief to the permanent job. They also wanted guidance for an initiative that they and the Oak Bluffs selectmen have previously discussed but only recently decided to consider in all its broad dimensions.

Mr. Wasserman is the chairman of the Strategic Policy Partnership, a group of public safety and public policy experts who assist police and government agencies with performance improvement and policy development issues.

In 2000, the Tisbury selectmen hired Mr. Wasserman to study problems in the town’s police department. His 25-page Police Issue Assessment, commonly referred to as the “Wasserman report,” was released in February 2001. Mr. Wasserman also reported on police issues on July 30, 2009 and August 27, 2009.

The earliest discussions with Oak Bluffs selectmen had arisen from the notion that perhaps the Oak Bluffs police chief might do double duty as the Tisbury chief. That way, Tisbury selectmen, who have appointed and then lost several chiefs in recent years, might avoid having to promote Mr. Hanavan or hire someone else. The latest chief, John Cashin, quit in May of last year. At that time, the selectmen turned to Mr. Wasserman for advice.

Chief Hanavan was appointed interim chief last year following the departure of Chief Cashin. Ultimately, despite flirting with the notion of asking Oak Bluffs to share its chief, the selectmen did appoint Chief Hanavan to the top job.

Mr. Wasserman’s report identifies the difficulties associated with arranging an Island-wide, or even a more limited, police organization, but he says, “it is clear that merger of the departments Islandwide makes economic sense.”

He suggests that, “A Tisbury-Oak Bluffs merger could serve as the pilot for the Island.”

And, it could save Tisbury money over the long term. But, in the near term, in part because Oak Bluffs officers are now paid more than Tisbury officers and the differential would need to be addressed, and because the single chief would need to be paid more than either the Oak Bluffs or Tisbury chief is paid now, Tisbury would face “substantial increased costs,” according to the report

In the long term, savings may be realized from establishing a single headquarters, single-shift supervisors, better use of personnel, thus reducing overtime and reducing the number of vehicles.

Mr. Wasserman recommended a three-year process of decision-making on the merger question, and he recommended hiring Chief Hanavan as the Tisbury chief, at least for the first year of the merger effort. In the second year, a new position, that of a single chief for the merged departments would be filled.

The Wasserman report considers not only the process of merging but also the governance structure for the merged departments. For instance, when a single chief is hired in the second year of the merger effort, Mr. Wasserman calls for that chief to “oversee the development of the final merger plans.”

The merged departments, allowed for in state law as inter-municipal agreements between the towns, would be overseen by a joint commission — perhaps, but not necessarily, including some or all the eight selectmen from the two towns.

State of Tisbury policing

In general terms, Mr. Wasserman reported improvement in the department. He wrote that the department’s officers “generally agree that things have settled down in the department.” And, Mr. Wasserman added, “The level of involvement of the selectmen in management matters has declined.”

He cited improved communication among department members and between officers and patrolmen as examples of improvement, as well as a clarified chain of command. He also cited increased patrolmen walking downtown streets, increased traffic enforcement, increased “equity of discipline” for department members, a commitment to help officers improve problematic behaviors, and increased video surveillance in police vehicles.

The consultant also recommended, whether a merger with Oak Bluffs is undertaken or not, that another officer be added to the department roster. He said savings would result from a reduction in overtime pay.

“All officers must recognize,” Mr. Wasserman wrote, “that policing Tisbury is different from policing some other towns on the Vineyard.” He described the Tisbury police job as requiring “professionalism and respect in interactions, service orientation, desire for high visibility, and strong community involvement and outreach.”

Mr. Wasserman called for leadership within the department to be strengthened, pointing to the need for sergeants to be helpful, instructive, and advisory for younger officers.

Mr. Wasserman writes that, “The work started by Acting Chief Hanavan to build a ‘corporate team’ needs to continue.” Collaboration among department workers “remains less than adequate,” the consultant finds. As examples, Mr. Wasserman writes, “A number of the tensions are related to previous issues that went unresolved for some time. Some newer officers are not viewed as a part of the team by older officers having a different view of policing. Traffic officers are generally not fully supported by some members of the department.”

Mr. Wasserman found that selectmen have intervened in ordinary personnel matters less recently than had been the case, but “some confusion about what the response needs to be when a police employee goes to a selectman to complain about a disciplinary or management decision. Some of this relates to the role of the town administrator.”

“The town administrator,” the consultant observes, “needs to improve town hall responsiveness to police department requests and processes.”