By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — The president of the patrolmen’s union is accusing Mayor James Fiorentini and police Chief Alan DeNaro of exploiting the death of a man by bee stings to get political payback against the officer.
Officer Rick Welch, a nine-year patrolman and the union president, is facing the potential of a long unpaid suspension for allegedly mishandling a missing person report in which the subject of the report — a 57-year-old Silsby Farm bee keeper — was later found dead at the farm.
“I am truly sympathetic to those who suffered the unexpected loss of their family member in this incident, it is tragic and heartbreaking,” Welch said in a written statement following his disciplinary hearing last week.
“However, I find it reprehensible that the mayor and chief would exploit such a tragedy just to pressure a union official and cause such extreme duress to me, my family, and my coworkers,’’ Welch’s statement continues. “I only hope this matter will bring to the surface many of the problems within our city’s public safety departments.”
DeNaro has recommended the mayor suspend Welch for six months without pay for not sending a patrol car to check on Alan Schwartz, after Schwartz’s mother called the police station at 2 a.m. on June 11 to report that her son did not come home that night and was not answering his cell phone.
Welch took the mother’s phone call, which was made to the Police Department’s non-emergency line, while he was working in the public safety dispatch center. Police said Ina Schwartz told Welch that her son was working with bees, that she feared for his safety, and that she wanted Welch to send an officer to check on him.
Instead of dispatching a cruiser to the farm on Salem Street in Bradford, however, Welch sent an email-style message to the patrolman assigned to cover that part of the city that night. Welch asked the patrolman to be on the lookout “during his travels” for Schwartz’s white Tacoma truck, according to the message.
But Welch did not include other information provided by the caller, such as her son’s last known location at the end of the dirt road at the farm. Schwartz was found dead by Marlene Stasinos, a Silsby Farm caretaker, around 8 a.m. — six hours after the victim’s mother called police.
Stasinos found the body after she received a phone call that morning from Schwartz’s mother. The state medical examiner has ruled that Schwartz died from an allergic reaction to bee venom.
Douglas Lousion, Welch’s union lawyer, said he researched many other cases of Haverhill officers cited for improperly handling calls for police assistance and that most of those cases resulted in officers receiving warnings. A few officers received one-day suspensions, Louison said.
Welch has no prior record of discipline or reprimands, police said.
“The only difference between those cases and this one is that Officer Welch is president of the union,” Louison told a reporter at last week’s disciplinary hearing. “You can read into that what you may.”
Fiorentini did not return phone calls and an email seeking his comment on Welch’s statement.
The mayor’s chief of staff, David Van Dam, did respond to the inquiry, however. Van Dam said Fiorentini would not comment on the case until he receives a report from David Connelly — the lawyer hired by the city to hear the case.
DeNaro called Welch’s statement “untrue and blatantly self-serving.”
“It is always disheartening to learn when one of our officers fail to perform their duties according to established departmental guidelines,” the police chief said in an email to The Eagle-Tribune. “The cornerstone of what we do as police officers centers on providing superior customer service to those who need our assistance. Substandard performance of this magnitude has and always will be swiftly and decisively addressed. In this particular instance the officer involved is trying to claim his punishment is the result of his position in the union. The statement is untrue and blatantly self-serving.”
At last week’s hearing, DeNaro said he already suspended Welch for five days — the maximum penalty the chief can impose on his own — and that he was instructed by the mayor to recommend Welch be suspended without pay for an additional 175 days.
The chief said Fiorentini has shown a special interest in the case, but he did not elaborate.
Louison, Welch’s lawyer, said it is a violation of the law that governs the disciplinary process for the mayor to tell the police chief what to set as the chief’s recommended punishment. The mayor, as the police appointing authority, is supposed to decide if punishment is warranted only after reading the hearing officer’s findings and his recommendations, Louison said.
Connelly, the hearing officer, is expected to submit findings and recommendations to the mayor within the next few weeks. Fiorentini will then decide Welch’s punishment. Welch can appeal the mayor’s ruling to the state Civil Service Commission.
If Welch’s claims of political retaliation are true, it would not be the first time DeNaro has tried to punish a patrolmen’s union official.
In August 2012, The Eagle-Tribune learned DeNaro informed then-union president Anthony Ciampa that he intended to suspend the officer for two days without pay, after Ciampa told city councilors that the Police Department has difficulty preventing crime and catching criminals due to staffing reductions, and that gang activity was on the rise. At the time, Welch was vice president of the union. Welch succeeded Ciampa as union president this year.
At a City Council meeting earlier in 2012, which was public and televised, Ciampa highlighted problems in the department and accused officials of using misleading statistics to make it appear crime in Haverhill is decreasing, when in fact it is soaring, he said. Ciampa told councilors the department is woefully understaffed and that officers don’t have time to investigate crimes, complete important paperwork or even eat during their shifts. Ciampa, who brought about a dozen officers with him to the meeting, said gang activity is on the rise and that officers rarely patrol certain parts of the city. He said morale was low among officers due to their extensive workload.
At the time, DeNaro refuted most of Ciampa’s claims and called them “union scare tactics.” The chief said the department follows state and FBI guidelines in compiling crime statistics.
Shortly after Ciampa spoke at the council meeting, DeNaro informed Ciampa that he would be suspended without pay for two days.
Ciampa appealed the punishment and was told to attend a disciplinary hearing. When a reporter showed up the hearing, DeNaro and City Solicitor William Cox said they were having a private meeting and asked the reporter to leave the room. Cox said the private meeting was to decide if there would be a disciplinary hearing.
At that point, Louison, the union’s lawyer, said the union wanted the hearing to be open. He said Ciampa wanted a “public airing” of the city’s case against him. DeNaro and Cox then asked Louison to accompany them to the city’s personnel office to talk privately. Louison returned about 30 minutes later and told Ciampa the city had decided to drop the matter.