Tisbury Police Officer Mark Santon repeatedly lied to an investigator, failed to follow police procedures, and demonstrated incompetence, according to an independent investigative report produced for the town.
Despite the findings, Tisbury selectmen voted to reinstate Officer Santon after a closed-door disciplinary hearing on May 24. The vote was unanimous, Larry Gomez, chairman of the Tisbury board of selectmen, told The Times.
Officer Santon, a 25-year veteran of the force, had been on paid leave for 11 weeks because a female prisoner nearly choked herself to death after being left unattended in his police cruiser on Jan. 27. The investigation found she was left alone for 13 minutes and 9 seconds.
After a nearly four-hour hearing, selectman Tristan Israel told The Times he believed selectmen dealt with the matter fairly, and that he was satisfied with the outcome. “We thoroughly vetted the event and took decisive action with regard to the situation,” he said.
Town officials decided to hire an independent investigator as opposed to having the department do its own investigation, to avoid any potential claim of conflict. A 45-page report from private consulting firm Billingsgate Associates, which cost the town $7,889, according to Jon Snyder, Tisbury finance director, was delivered to the Tisbury Police Department on April 13 and obtained by The Times last week. The report was sharply critical of Officer Santon, stating that he repeatedly failed to follow basic police protocol on the night of the attempted suicide, and that he also lied multiple times about events that took place that night.
“The most troubling revelation during this investigation is the untruthfulness exhibited by Officer Santon during his interview,” the report said.
Tisbury Police Chief Dan Hanavan declined to comment on the report, and referred calls to town administrator Jay Grande, who did not return repeated messages. Selectmen have also referred calls to Mr. Grande.
Mr. Gomez told The Times that town officials have been advised not to provide public comment at this time.
The Times has not been able to reach Officer Santon for comment.
The independent investigator determined the woman was left unattended for more than 13 minutes, while Officer Santon did paperwork in the booking room of the Dukes County jail in Edgartown.
The woman recently told The Times that her arrest triggered a panic attack that caused her to black out, leaving her with no recollection of what happened while she was left in the police cruiser.
“Officer Santon’s justification for leaving his prisoner unattended in his cruiser is totally contrary to the training he has received during his tenure as a police officer,” the investigator wrote. “For an officer with Officer Santon’s tenure, the significance of his neglect cannot be understated and is troubling.”
He also stated that Officer Santon lied about how long he left the prisoner unattended — initially saying it was a couple of minutes, four to five minutes, possibly 10 minutes, and then maybe more than 10 minutes, and the investigator concluded Officer Santon’s “attempt to create doubt” around the accuracy of the times was an effort to “further that lie.”
The 13 minutes Officer Santon took to do paperwork in the booking room was far less critical, in the consultant’s view, than his attention to the prisoner, given his experience and the application of “common sense.” To that end, the report found, Officer Santon placed handcuffs on the woman improperly when she was arrested, which allowed her to free her left hand and tie the drawstring of her hooded sweatshirt around her neck while unattended.
Officer Santon’s failure to properly apply handcuffs was described in the report as “incompetence that may be deemed by demonstrating the failure to conform to work standards established for the officer’s rank, grade, or position.”
“This is a major officer safety mistake that could have had fatal ramifications,” the report stated.
All police officers in Massachusetts receive mandatory instruction during training from the Municipal Police Training Committee for suicide prevention, which includes the fact that the highest risk of suicide attempt by a prisoner is within the first three hours of arrest, according to the report.
The report reveals sharply different accounts among law enforcement officers from that night.
Officer Santon told the deputy on duty that the prisoner was “calm and not a problem.” While he was in the booking room, the deputy determined that the woman had been arrested before, and was described as “a difficult prisoner” and a “previously entered suicide risk candidate,” according to the report.
The deputy, whose name was redacted from the report, asked Officer Santon three to four times if he was sure the prisoner was OK, and stated concerns over the period of time Officer Santon was inside the jail.
Officer Santon denied that person asked him if the prisoner was OK, and reported that the only time the prisoner’s demeanor was discussed was when he gave his initial assessment upon entering the booking room. The person stated he or she was certain about expressing concern and asking Officer Santon several times about the status of his prisoner.
Officer Santon admitted in the report that he could have left the booking room immediately after securing his firearm to monitor the woman.
In his police report, Officer Santon wrote that he took the woman to the jail after arresting her on a charge of unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, following a car accident near the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal. The woman produced a Brazilian passport instead of a driver’s license at the accident scene. While he was inside the jail, the woman wiggled out of one of her handcuffs and wrapped a string from a hooded sweatshirt around her neck. When Officer Santon and a sheriff’s deputy emerged from the jail to transfer her into county custody, they found the woman unconscious and without a pulse. He stated she was revived and taken to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
But the report found more missteps and inconsistencies. Police officers are required to notify shift commanders about a prisoner’s suicide attempt, and Officer Santon lied about notifying his supervisor. He did not notify his shift commander, although he said he had contacted the Tisbury Police Department in previous questioning, the investigator stated.
Cell phone records show he did not call the department until he arrived at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Records also indicate he had a four-minute conversation with another police officer, whose name is redacted, on their personal cell phones, after he called Edgartown EMTs. The lie was “an attempt to mitigate his failure to directly communicate to his supervisor the attempted suicide of his prisoner,” the report said.
Officer Santon’s failure to notify his shift commander — considered withholding of information — although he had “ample time to do so,” and it was “an absolute obligation,” was “a major violation of the department’s chain of command,” according to the report.
The report was also critical of accepted police protocol. It stated the Islandwide practice of transporting officers leaving their prisoners unattended in cruisers while they enter the jail booking room to secure their firearm and wait for the deputy to go outside and get the prisoner “is a violation of the written policy” of the Dukes County Sheriff’s Office, the report said, estimating that prisoners can be left for 10 or 15 minutes or longer.
It stated that the fact that the booking process has always been done that way was not an excuse if it’s contrary to or conflicts with an officer’s training, and should have been addressed through the chain of command by Officer Santon and others.
Selectman Tristan Israel called the practice “a glaring error in protocol” during a selectmen’s meeting on May 23.
In the wake of the suicide attempt, selectmen approved a change in the way the town’s police department takes prisoners to the Edgartown jail on May 30.
“We started a new procedure when we take someone down to the jail, when we place them under arrest, that we don’t leave them by themselves at any time,” Chief Hanavan told selectmen on Tuesday. “They’re always going to be in our custody.”
Now, Tisbury police will secure their firearm in the trunk of the police cruiser while the prisoner remains handcuffed in the back seat. The deputy on duty will come out to the car and walk the prisoner in, and he or she will remain in someone’s custody at all times, Chief Hanavan said.
Sheriff Robert Ogden told The Times last week that he was aware of the change in procedure, and that it was up to the police department to decide how they operate. The sheriff’s department has “tightened up” its 30-year policy by making sure that a deputy goes outside to stay with a prisoner if an officer goes into the jail to secure his or her firearm, doing their “due diligence in observing the arrestee, so that there’s no time that they’re alone,” he said.
Post updated June 2 to reflect additions to the story.