EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

December 7, 2013

Police union head suspended over bee-sting death

By Shawn Regan
sregan@eagletribune.com

---- — HAVERHILL — The patrolman's union president has been suspended for 15 days without pay for mishandling a call from an elderly woman who was concerned about her son — a 57-year-old Silsby Farm beekeeper found dead from bee stings.

Police Chief Alan DeNaro previously suspended Patrolman Rick Welch for five days without pay and recommended that Mayor James Fiorentini suspend the officer without pay for another 175 days. A five-day suspension is the maximum the chief can impose on his own.

In his Dec. 3 ruling, the mayor upheld DeNaro's original five-day suspension and added 10 more for a total of 15 suspension days. Fiorentini said he relied on Welch's clean record in rejecting DeNaro's recommendation to suspend the officer for six months.

The case focuses on Welch's decision not to send a patrol car to check on beekeeper Alan Schwartz, after his mother called police 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 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, Welch sent an email-style message to the patrolman assigned to patrol that part of the city that night. Welch told him 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 mother called police.

Stasinos found the body after she received a phone call that morning from Schwartz's mother. The state medical examiner ruled that Schwartz died from an allergic reaction to bee venom.

Fiorentini's decision mirrors the recommendation of a hearing officer who presided over Welch's appeal of DeNaro's recommendation. The hearing took place in September at City Hall and included testimony from Welch, several other officers, city officials and witnesses.

"A 10 tour suspension (in addition to the previous five day suspension) is a significant level of discipline," the mayor's decision said. "Officer Welch's actions fell well below those required of a professional police dispatcher ... and contravened policy and regulations of the Haverhill Police Department. The public must have confidence that their calls will be taken seriously and acted on judiciously. In this instance, Officer Welch actions frustrated an essential component of effective policing."

Welch, a nine-year patrolman, told The Eagle-Tribune he believes his punishment is excessive and that it is payback for his union activities. He also said he believes the hearing officer's report is biased and that he intends to appeal the mayor's decision to the state Civil Service Commission.

"This decision to decrease my punishment from the chief's suggestion of a six month suspension reveals the serious internal issues that the patrolman's union members have faced for several years now," Welch said in a written statement to the paper. "The administration has made it evident that it's not about presenting a fair and reasonable punishment for officers who make a mistake or allegedly violate our many rules, regulations, policies and procedures. And though I recognize my case is an extreme example, I know that many more officers have faced the oppressive and harsh work environment created by this very behavior."

DeNaro called Welch's claims about unfair treatment and political retribution "misleading and self-serving."

"It is blatantly obvious that he (Welch) has used and continues to use his union position in a feeble attempt to exonerate himself from all wrongdoing regarding his actions in dispatch on the night in question," DeNaro said in an email to newspaper. "For a community to have confidence in its police department it must have confidence in the department’s ability to objectively police itself and take corrective action when warranted. "

DeNaro cited Welch for violating department rules for making field reports and handling requests for assistance, as well as neglect of duty and unsatisfactory work performance.

The report by hearing officer David Connelly said his findings were based on "undisputed evidence that Officer Welch failed in his duties and responsibilities as a police dispatcher."

"Mrs. Schwartz's phone call provided clear and concise information to Officer Welch," the report said, in part. "The information gave exact areas of Mr. Schwartz's suspected location (e.g. a dirt path, the beekeeping area, Salem Street, Silsby Farm) ...The call was at 2:30 in the morning from an elderly woman who was understandably concerned about the well-being of her adult son because of his non-response to her calls to his cell phone."

Connelly's report said the call should have provoked a vigorous response from Welch, but that the officer determined it was not a priority call.

"Officer Welch suggested that because Mr. Schwartz was an adult, a more serious response was not warranted," the hearing officer wrote.

It is up to DeNaro to determine when Welch begins to serve the suspension. He said he expects the city's decision will prevail on appeal.