Tisbury selectmen fire police officer Kelly Kershaw

Tisbury police officer Kelly Kershaw, seated, center, at left, faced a disciplinary hearing before Tisbury selectmen. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Updated 1:30 pm, Wednesday, June 12

After a three-hour disciplinary hearing held behind closed doors Monday evening, Tisbury selectmen voted unanimously to fire police officer Kelly Kershaw.

“The action that was taken tonight was termination of Officer Kershaw’s employment with the town of Tisbury,” town administrator John “Jay” Grande said in a brief statement after the hearing. “I will not be commenting any further on that at this time. That’s essentially the action that was taken.”

Jennifer Smith, a police union lawyer who represented Officer Kershaw at the Monday hearing, told The Times on Wednesday that she intended to file an unfair labor practice charge with the Massachusetts Department of Labor Relations that day. The state agency will investigate and decide whether to issue a complaint against the town of Tisbury.

“The town’s treatment of Officer Kershaw has been vicious and wholly unreasonable,” Ms. Smith said in a phone interview Wednesday. “We will challenge the board’s decision, in addition to filing an unfair labor practice, because the town has unjustifiably refused to provide complete information in a rather ham-fisted attempt to rob the pre-termination hearing of any meaning. I know that as the real story unfolds that Officer Kershaw will have the complete support of the community.”

Long process

The hearing began at about 6:30 pm in Tisbury town hall. Selectmen greeted Officer Kershaw and her representatives, and asked her if she wanted to exercise her right to have the disciplinary hearing open to the public. She did not answer, but her attorney, Ms. Smith, declined that option.

The three Tisbury selectmen, Jeff Kristal, Tristan Israel, and Jonathan Snyder, voted unanimously to enter executive session. One of the exceptions to the open meeting law allows selectmen to discuss discipline or dismissal of a town employee in private. The room was cleared of reporters, photographers, and several Tisbury police officers.

Selectmen, Mr. Grande, assistant town manager Aasa Jones, and the town’s labor attorney, Brian Maser, remained in the room. Ms. Kershaw sat at a table directly in front of the selectmen, flanked by Chris Kelsey, a representative of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police, the union that represents Tisbury police officers, and Ms. Smith, a lawyer with the Boston law firm Sandulli Grace, which represents union members in arbitration and disciplinary proceedings.

The hearing ended at about 9:30 pm. Ms. Kershaw declined comment as she left town hall with her representatives.

The three Tisbury selectmen, appearing drained following the long hearing Monday night, declined immediate comment on their decision.

Police Chief Dan Hanavan Tuesday referred all questions to the town administrator.

In a telephone conversation Tuesday, chairman Jeff Kristal spoke for the board about the town’s disciplinary process.

“The selectman do not make up the process or the time line, we follow it,” Mr. Kristal said. “In some instances, a personnel policy dictates the process, in other circumstances the state dictates the process and sometimes the courts dictate the process.

“Last night the selectmen followed this step in the process and the town ended its relationship with Ms. Kershaw. It is time for Tisbury to look toward the future and be proud of all the good that has happened in the police department in the last few years. The police department will focus on the positive and move forward. We have an excellent police department and the town should be proud of their service to our community.”

Lack of truthfulness

The vote to fire Officer Kershaw, 30, followed an internal investigation into violations of police department policy.

Officer Kershaw left Tisbury with her police cruiser while on duty, for hours at a time and on multiple occasions, said two sources with knowledge of the investigation. The sources, who spoke to The Times prior to the hearing, requested they not be named, because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.

She then lied to investigators when questioned about the trips, according to the sources. The primary reason for her suspension and dismissal was Ms. Kershaw’s lack of truthfulness.

If a disciplinary procedure establishes that an officer has lied in the course of official police duty, that leaves the officer in an untenable position when testifying in court about unrelated cases. The officer’s testimony under oath could be called into question by the court or opposing attorneys, weakening prosecution of any case the officer investigated.

Under the law, a prosecutor would be required to give a defense attorney the officer’s disciplinary records, because they may help exonerate a defendant.

Confronted with the results of the internal police department investigation into her frequent trips out of Tisbury while on duty, Officer Kershaw denied she had violated department policy. She said her visits to the communication center were infrequent, and only related to official business.

Out of town

Officer Kershaw drove her police vehicle to the Dukes County Communications Center, located near the Martha’s Vineyard Airport terminal, during evening shifts, and remained there, sometimes for more than half of her assigned shift, according to the sources. The communications center houses radio equipment, computers, and dispatchers who handle emergency calls, and assign responses for all Island law enforcement and public safety organizations.

The Tisbury police department policy manual describes specific procedures for an officer to leave the town on police business, such as testifying in court, responding to a call for help from another town police department, or transporting people to jail after an arrest. It also covers non-police absences.

“Officers will not leave town for non-police or personal business during their shift, unless they have the approval of the shift sergeant or OIC (officer in charge) and will be reachable by radio,” the policy manual states. “If their absence is for longer than an half an hour (which should only be in unusual circumstances) they should arrange to take compensatory time or vacation time. The shift supervisor or OIC shall ensure that a minimum of two officers are assigned to the shift and available for patrol duties at all times.”

Safety concern

Public safety officials were concerned about response to an emergency. The communications center is 5.8 miles from Main Street in Tisbury, and that distance would take about 12 minutes to drive, at normal driving speeds.

They were also concerned that other police officers on duty were unaware that Officer Kershaw was not immediately available for backup.

Communications center personnel were interviewed as part of the Tisbury police department’s investigation, and confirmed the frequency and duration of Officer Kershaw’s on-duty visits, according to sources.

The dispatchers did not violate any policies or procedures, and they will not be disciplined. They were themselves concerned about Officer Kershaw’s visits, according to the sources.

Stormy history

Ms. Kershaw joined Tisbury’s police department as a traffic officer in the summer of 2002. In 2004, she became the department’s first full-time female officer in several years.

In 2009, she filed a sexual harassment claim with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. In September 2011, MCAD issued a partial finding for Ms. Kershaw but did not support all her allegations.

She is currently suing the town and the department in Dukes County Superior Court for employment discrimination. She alleges the department and her fellow officers retaliated against her for pursuing legal action.

On the evening of November 20, 2012, Officer Kershaw blacked out while driving a police cruiser and struck a tree on State Road. Officer Kershaw was placed on paid medical leave pending a decision on her medical fitness to return to work.

On May 15, the Edgartown District Court issued a criminal complaint against Ms. Kershaw for her actions during a fire at her home on May 9. The criminal complaint charges Officer Kershaw with hindering a firefighter who was trying to put out the fire, a felony, and misdemeanor charges of assault on a police officer, disorderly conduct, and threatening to commit a crime. Her scheduled arraignment on May 17 was postponed until June 28.

She was scheduled to return to work on May 23, but was immediately placed on paid administrative leave, pending Monday’s disciplinary hearing.