EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 22, 2013

Officer's fate rests with town officials

Town, lawyer paint very different pictures

By John Toole
jtoole@eagletribune.com

---- — PELHAM — Two very different portrayals of police Officer Eugene Stahl were painted last night during his public termination hearing.

One is of a repeatedly suspended officer who disregards department policies, speaks in anger to citizens and needlessly waves his gun near a school bus.

This is the Eugene Stahl administrators want to fire.

“He can’t be on this department any more,” attorney Peter Nicosia argued on behalf of the administration.

The other Eugene Stahl is an award-winning officer, praised at times by his chief in job reviews and respected by his peers.

“This man is a fine officer,” attorney David Slawsky said on Stahl’s behalf.

A nearly 90-minute hearing at Town Hall drew about 40 people, including many members of the police department.

Attorneys have a week to file followup briefs, then selectmen will have another 10 days to issue a written decision.

Stahl will have appeal options either to Superior Court or through a labor relations process through the Pelham chapter of the AFSCME Local 3657 that represents patrol officers.

Chief Joseph Roark has recommended his dismissal.

Roark said Stahl has been on paid administrative leave. Slawsky said the leave has been for almost four months.

Slawsky argued that is long enough and Stahl should not be fired.

He said selectmen could impose less serious discipline.

“It is time to put him back to work,” Slawsky said.

He acknowledged Stahl is not perfect, but said his more than 12-year career with the department should not be defined by four or five minutes of video tape from actions in the field.

“The truth is, warts and all, Officer Stahl is proud of his career,” Slawsky said.

Nicosia showed selectmen video from a DWI stop last January during which Stahl cursed at a 23-year-old woman and told her, “You’re going to jail.”

Nicosia said Stahl interrogated the woman in an abusive, hostile manner for more than 40 minutes.

He said it was unnecessary because two other officers already had the situation in hand.

The woman could be heard sobbing on the video.

But Nicosia said selectmen also must consider Stahl’s past.

He showed another video of a traffic stop from six years ago where Stahl pulled a gun after stopping two juveniles in the vicinity of a school bus.

“He flails the gun about recklessly,” Nicosia said.

That was unnecessary, Nicosia maintained.

“There’s no justification for potential use of deadly force,” he said.

Stahl also threatened to punch a woman in another incident, spoke insubordinately about his superiors while in the field and recklessly operated a cruiser more than 50 mph over the speed limit while responding to a call, Nicosia said.

Stahl’s actions pose a threat to citizens and could cause the department to lose prosecutions, Nicosia said.

But Slawsky defended Stahl, suggesting his actions would not even raise an eyebrow in Lawrence or Boston.

Sometimes, he argued, police officers have to be aggressive.

In the case of the woman, the arrest happened on a winter night when a search was contemplated and officers’ lives could have been placed in jeopardy by the cold, he said.

Slawsky said an FBI trainer who reviewed Stahl’s stop of the juveniles where he pulled his gun concluded the officer did nothing wrong.

Slawsky questioned whether Stahl’s union activities — he has been president of the patrol union in the past — was a factor in the discipline, but Nicosia insisted that is not the case.

Stahl’s attorney also suggested the chief had erred in placing Stahl on a list of officers with credibility issues used in the court system.

That could mean Stahl won’t be able to get hired somewhere else, if he is fired.

The administration’s case against Stahl doesn’t warrant dismissal, he said.

“This is not the kind of thing you terminate somebody for,” Slawsky said.

Nicosia countered that Stahl had anger management issues and standards are very high for police officers.

“There isn’t a very high tolerance for missteps,” he said.