Lessons learned, we hope

17

Let’s start by saying the Tisbury Police absolutely did the right thing when the department investigated a possible “threat” made against Tisbury School by crossing guard Stephen Nichols. These days, when there have been so many school shootings, it’s important to be vigilant.

From that point on, though, it’s tough to find much that was done right. There were missteps and there was miscommunication — or no communication — all along the way.

The alleged “threat” was made on Wednesday, Sept. 18. The person who heard it was not the first person to report it to the police. Instead, it was reported by her husband two days after she allegedly heard Nichols use the phrase “shoot up the school” inside an Oak Bluffs restaurant where she was working. If she really thought it was a threat, why would she wait two full days to get police involved?

The comment, according to Nichols, was made in the context of school resource officer Scott Ogden. In a conversation at the restaurant, Nichols told The Times, he told another man he feared someone could go in and “shoot up the school” because Ogden “left his post” every day to go to XtraMart, a convenience store and gas station in Vineyard Haven.

To Nichols, a veteran, it was akin to a soldier letting down his guard. But as selectman Jim Rogers rightly pointed out at a selectmen’s meeting that came well into the public fury, Nichols’ and the public’s perception of a school resource officer was skewed. Ogden isn’t an armed security guard for the school. He’s there as a resource, part of the police department’s commitment to community policing. It would have been a good thing to bring up from the beginning. Unfortunately, the town clammed up, saying there was nothing that could be said or released, citing the personnel exemption in public records law. Hopefully, what Tisbury has learned is that doesn’t stop others from filling in the narrative, and in some cases it can be completely wrong.

There’s no reason why Police Chief Mark Saloio or school Principal John Custer couldn’t put into context what a school resource officer’s responsibilities are. Given two opportunities before the story was published, Saloio declined to answer questions or release documents, citing the “personnel” exemption, and Custer simply said he had not had any complaints from the public about Ogden.

By pulling Nichols from his duties as a crossing guard while he was performing them, police added to the bad optics of the situation. They could have watched Nichols closely, let him finish for the day, and then questioned the 84-year-old man.

Unlike online commenters from across the country, we don’t pretend to know what happened next. During questioning at his home, Nichols surrendered his guns and his firearms license to Saloio. We only have Nichols’ account of this exchange, because of the town of Tisbury’s decision to release no information. We understand following a lawyer’s advice, but rarely does a lawyer have to live with the consequences. In this case, those consequences have been a tarnishing of the chief’s and department’s reputations, and a perception that Nichols wasn’t provided due process.

Perhaps the worst mistake in all of this was how the town initially reacted when it became public that Nichols had been removed from his job. That blame falls squarely on the shoulders of town administrator Jay Grande. When asked about Nichols, Grande issued a brief statement acknowledging that a crossing guard had been removed from his duties and his job was under review. There was nothing about the department taking appropriate action to investigate a threat.

Compounding the lack of information to the public, the town’s board of selectmen were kept in the dark by Grande about a subject that was about to go viral and make them all look bad.

We could clearly see what the public perception was going to be here — a veteran of the U.S. Army during the Korean War, a longtime police officer, and a respected member of the community was mistreated in the eyes of the public. The story took on a life of its own, being passed around on social media like the hottest of hot potatoes. (Things got so bad on the Tisbury Police Facebook page that they suspended it temporarily.) It also resulted in a petition drive that quickly picked up steam.

We do give Grande and Saloio credit for recognizing the public outcry and speeding up their “review” of Nichols. They met with him on Columbus Day, and returned him to his job that Tuesday morning. That was an important first step in the right direction.

But the town missed an opportunity that day. They could have said they were deeply sorry for how they handled the Nichols situation. Instead, they circled the wagons at a board of selectmen’s meeting and went on the defensive.

Town leaders have said that the town has to do better with both internal and external communications, and on Saturday the board met in a workshop setting to begin those discussions. Let’s hope they got the message.

17 COMMENTS

  1. I think the Times also had a duty to investigate and properly report what Officer Ogden’s duties are and whether his alleged conduct was in keeping with them or not. As you stated here, the perception of what his position should entail versus the reality of his job are probably not the same thing, yet his name was allowed to be dragged through the mud. We are told that we cannot comment on anything that isn’t factual and verifiable, but Mr. Nichols was permitted to tell his side of the story as if it were fact, and the Times did not (as far as what they printed, anyway) make an effort to balance that with unbiased information.

    I am glad Mr. Nichols has his job back and that this has been resolved. Hoping we’ve all learned a few things from this situation. The only part I disagree with here is the statement that there was no need to relieve him of duty once they moved to investigate. While it definitely was not an ideal situation and I sympathize with him and the students, you can’t go in halfway on something like this. You can’t have police “watching” a person working with children who is actively under investigation for making a threat against a school, banking on being able to stop it if something goes into motion. That would be irresponsible and dangerous, had the threat turned out to be credible. Thank God it wasn’t.

    • As the editorial states, the town was given several attempts over two days to answer specific questions.

      • I do think the town should’ve provided that information to the paper. Absolutely. Because they didn’t, I don’t know that it was fair to publish Officer Ogden’s name alongside these accusations. There was no reason to think he had done anything wrong beyond the word of one person who turned out to be incorrect in his assumptions about how the position works. I guess that’s where “allegedly” comes in, and I know the Times made that distinction, but the rest still felt quite biased to me. There were known details about the SRO job that could’ve been included to give the public a more well-rounded picture from the start.

        The fault also lies with the readers. People who were adamantly opposed to the word of one person being used against Mr. Nichols did not offer the same benefit of the doubt to Officer Ogden. I personally regret that in sympathizing with Mr. Nichols, because I’m sure this was very difficult for him, I mostly took his word as fact.

        In the end, everything is a popularity contest in small towns. Many have noted that the server from Linda Jean’s was not sincerely concerned because she supposedly waited too long to report what she heard. How truly concerned was Mr. Nichols that the school was going to be shot up if, as Mr. Custer is quoted as saying in the original article, he never filed a complaint against Ogden with the school? Did he do so with the police department? Did the Times ask Mr. Nichols about that? Unless I missed it, and I apologize in advance if I did, the answer is no. That’s what I mean when I say the article appeared biased. If he had reported Ogden, he likely would’ve mentioned it, along with what he received as a reply.

        This whole thing could’ve been avoided if everyone involved went through proper channels in a timely manner. If you think a school is in danger because an officer is dropping the ball or someone has made a threat, by all means, report it to the police. Immediately.

        • Unfortunately for people like yourself there is a thing called the first Amendment.
          People are allowed to express their opinions just as you have without being subjected to the apparent lawlessness that occurs in your community. Putting someone through all this nonsense because he criticized someone or had a concern that was overheard by someone not even party to the conversation is rather lame.
          See my comments below.

      • Nantucket, that’s true. Not from Mr. Nichols and not from the officer he accused of leaving, either. Which is why I am saying everyone involved should learn not to badmouth for the sake of it and instead go through proper channels, in proper time, if it’s believed there really is a threat.

  2. I would have to respectfully disagree that this matter was handled properly at all based on what has been written about it and on my own communication directly with the Chief Of Police.
    1. Taking a complaint from someone not directly involved in a discussion based on what they indicate they overheard while working and serving customers in a restaurant should always be treated with caution because it is easy to misconstrue something taken out of context. There is also no mention in anything I have read that the Chief spoke with the people involved in the conversation with Mr. Nichols who would have clarified that he had not issued any threats.

    2. The Constitution of the United States guarantees that people are entitled to due process before they are
    deemed guilty. When on the basis of what appears to have been limited information you remove someone from their job, allegedly tell them they committed a felony but that you will not charge them (no statute has been cited in any of the articles written on this issue), take their firearm license, and then take them to their home to get their firearm without a warrant which is only issued when probable cause is established is nothing more than the intimidation of an 84 year old responsible member of your community and a Veteran who served his Country.
    3. It is rather interesting that the Chief and the Electpersons on the Town Governing Board are scrupulous in making sure everyone knows it is against the law to reveal personnel information, but not so scrupulous when it comes to taking someone’s personal property through intimidation rather than due process.
    4. Those who would argue Mr. Nichols relinquished these items voluntarily ought to consider he was removed from his job while doing it, told he committed a felony (yet unnamed), was not going to be charged (not sure I understand that since when do police not charge accused felons if they have sufficient evidence that the felony was committed?) Someone steals a car and you catch them in the stolen car with no adequate explanation, they are charged and arrested, yes?
    5. I live in Colorado where we just passed a Red Flag law with two critical components. If you file a complaint against someone you must sign an affidavit indicating that if you file a false statement you are subject to both civil and criminal penalties. A person’s firearms are not taken until the person has had the opportunity to face his accusers before a Judge, not the police chief or the Town Electpersons. That’s what we call due process according to both the Colorado State and USA Constitution.
    6. I personally worked with School Resource Officers here in Colorado while I volunteered for the Longmont Police Department since I had a 35 year career in education, 28 years as a School Administrator. I will tell you two things with certainty. Our officers arrived before the children and left at the end of the school day.
    They are regular cops like every other cop on the force and like every other cop on the force in addition to their educational roles in the school they are expected to protect people in the school in the same manner they would protect them on the street. So this nonsense about the role of this Resource Officer if he in fact is a regular officer is ludicrous. He is there to protect and serve regardless of his other duties. Mr. Nichols criticism and concern was valid.
    7. The thing I find hardest to comprehend having worked in the public schools is if you have an employee who you feel has committed a felony and taken his firearms and removed him from his job why would you put him back because of public pressure or say you never intended to remove him permanently and then immediately reinstate him? Most places would not do that until an investigation was completed and by doing that you might as well have given him back his gun as well. It has to cut both ways. If you really believed he committed a felony charge him and suspend him until all the facts are known or reinstate him and give him his license and firearm. You put a person you felt committed a felony back in contact with children ?
    Sorry folks there is something radically wrong with the rationale for the entire way this situation was handled. You took a responsible member of your community with no criminal record whatsoever and treated him unfairly. You need to give him his license and firearm back unless you can prove he is mentally incompetent, a danger to himself or others, or in fact has committed the unnamed felony.

    • dprato– thank you for taking the time to really lay this one out. An excellent commentary.
      I have to say, that in general, this story has brought out the best of the commentators here. There have been many thoughtful post here, sticking to the story at hand. I sometimes visit the underworld commentary at Fox “news” . I am very thankful that i live in a community that is not dominated by people who can only respond to something like this with less than 280 characters and use words that are no more than 3 syllables .

  3. Well stated Dprato! I couldn’t have said it better myself! Unfortunately this isn’t the first time this chief has skipped due process, and he hasn’t even been here a year yet! I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg and Tisbury is the Titanic. The taxpayers will be saddled with more debt because the Town hasn’t learned its lesson to choose wisely and tread carefully. I believe we are dealing with a repeat offender when it comes to due process and people’s rights.

  4. Thank you dprato!! Yes, In the middle of Steve and Jr is Nichols. Your comments are the most precise and accurate that have been made about this long drawn out situation. I have thanked everyone( I hope ) for their support for my father and kept my fingers off the keys to others. You have no horse in this race, yet you have made the most impact with your comments as far as I can see. Will anyone admit to this?? Again.. I’ll stay silent. Thank you

    • I can understand your position on the matter but I have one advantage and that is when I see something I believe is wrong or unfair regardless where it occurs, I don’t have to be silent. You can be assured that I will be following this issue to see if people examine this from all sides and give your father the due process he deserves and if exonerated is given his license and firearm back. There should be no reason why this should have to go to court which it will if this entire situation is not resolved appropriately. Lets hope it can be resolved by your Police Chief and Town Board living up to their oath of office and upholding the Constitution which I believe they must have sworn to do?

      • Wasn’t it stated that his gun(s) were turned over to a member of his family a while ago? And thank goodness we have you to stay on top of the issue and school us all from afar with points that were made literally hundreds of times already on social media. It’s very gutsy to stick up for the opinion held by 99% of people on the subject.

        I will say it again, if Mr. Nichols has “valid” concerns as you claim, it’s his responsibility to voice them to the people in charge. And I don’t see how you can possibly know how valid they were without knowing Ogden’s exact schedule and when he is expected to be at the school.

        • It doesn’t matter whether you or I believe his claims or opinions are valid or not since he has a First Amendment right to his opinion right or wrong as we do to the validity of his opinion. The issues here are the reasons for why he was initially removed from his job, replaced and then still without his license and firearm. As far as schooling people goes I am speaking from personal experience and other than the articles I read I have no real idea how many people feel as I do on the total issue except that people signed a petition to get him back to work but there is not much in those articles about his license and firearm. His son and the other person who responded in this article besides yourself seem to be fine with everything I have said so I will go with that and stick to all the comments I have placed here.

          • I don’t have a problem with what you wrote about the case itself. I just don’t see the point in bragging about keeping everyone on their toes and making sure we look at this from all angles when that’s been done all along. Your reply to me at the top of the thread struck me as overly aggressive because it had nothing to do with a word I said and assumed all sorts of incorrect things about my stance. Were you just looking for someone to attack over this? That, I don’t get. I never questioned his Constitutional rights. I never said I’m on board with everything that happened in this case. I am familiar with the Constitution, as I’m sure everyone is. The Constitution does not explain away why a man who was supposedly SO concerned for the welfare of children chose to complain to a friend rather than his bosses, who could check into things and make sure the security at the school is as tight as it can be. No, he can’t be jailed for what he said. Nor would I want him to be. No, I don’t get every move the police made in this case. Yes, he should receive his LTC back if the investigation is now closed and he has been fully cleared. Yes, I am glad he gets to keep his job, which I already mentioned.

            That doesn’t mean I feel he did the right thing in this instance, professionally or ethically. That doesn’t mean I have to find it acceptable that someone who was a cop for decades would rather gossip about an issue than make an attempt to actually FIX the issue, especially when the issue is the safety and lives of children being put on the line, according to Mr. Nichols himself. Do I expect anyone to hold him accountable for not trying to shore up what HE claims is a major security flaw? Nope. Accountability on that isn’t going to happen. Do I think everyone involved, from the paper to the cops to the waitress to Mr. Nichols himself could’ve handled this better and done more to prevent misinformation from being spread? I do.

            Not sure how any of that is the same as saying, “No 1st or 2nd Amendment rights for you!”, but if you’re determined to twist it, you will.

        • Aquinah— first, if you address the person to whom you are responding, it would help me at least to refer to previous comments– while the format is fairly clear, it is sometimes difficult to follow the thread– thanks.
          I just have one issue with your latest comment .
          “The Constitution does not explain away why a man who was supposedly SO concerned for the welfare of children chose to complain to a friend rather than his bosses, ”
          You know, sometimes you talk to friends first– a private conservation.

          • Don, yes, I will include names. Sorry about that. Normally I would see what you mean, except we are talking about “shooting up a school” and someone who has said he approaches this issue with a military sensibility. I think time is the most important thing going in matters of security. That is what I had drilled into me, military-wise. I know that Mr. Nichols had no knowledge of an actual threat and was just talking about a for-instance concern, but it’s a pretty pressing for-instance. Perhaps the most pressing I can think of. The police would do better to made aware of ASAP.

            It bothers me tremendously that when I looked into it, no one had received any complaints, prior to the one coming out of Linda Jean’s. I no longer think there was anything to complain about, as I don’t believe Officer Ogden did anything wrong here. Should be clear on that, as his reputation has taken a hit. I did originally share the same concern as Mr. Nichols, and I regret assuming he left his post.

            But if Mr. Nichols thought something could leave kids vulnerable, please please, get it checked out. By all means. That’s all I’m saying. Same with anyone who thinks they’ve overheard a shooting or bomb threat. Get to the police quickly and let them sort it out. With the backlash received from doing so in this case, I don’t know if people will report in the future, for fear of professional or personal consequences, even if done in good faith. And that is beyond scary to me. I have nothing against Mr. Nichols personally, only the idea that an experienced employee (or anyone at all, really) wouldn’t make the school’s safety priority #1 by going to those in command. The school’s safety is my main focus.

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