SALEM, N.H. — The town has been without a police chief since Dec. 31, 2018 — a running total of 536 days — with no word from officials about when someone will be appointed to the top job.
The person legally responsible for overseeing department heads and hiring municipal employees is Town Manager Chris Dillon, who has continually refused to respond when contacted by The Eagle-Tribune.
Dillon reports to a five-member Board of Selectmen, of which at least two members are unclear about the police matter and pointed to the town manager for answers. The remaining three members —Michael Lyons, James Keller and Cathy Ann Stacey — did not respond to requests for comment.
“This is 100% under the town manager’s purview,” said Selectwoman Lisa Withrow, noting she is “not aware of any updates.”
Selectman Bob Bryant reiterated, “the town manager has left us in the dark.”
“(Selectmen) were looking to find a company who works with hiring police chiefs, knows the qualifications, etc., that could help us with the process,” Bryant said. “The last time I spoke to Mr. Dillon, I didn’t receive a real response, only that the process was moving forward. That would have been my third time asking if we’re making any progress.”
Salem police have been managed by Civilian Administrator Brian Pattullo since Dec. 3, 2018, after former longtime Chief Paul Donovan announced his imminent retirement in the wake of a damning audit of his department.
Pattullo worked his entire 32-year career in Andover, meaning he does not have policing powers in New Hampshire.
He was assigned to oversee the Salem department because of his experience in policy work, he said, including as former president of the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission.
Dillon contracted Pattullo through the independent firm Municipal Resources Inc. with an agreement that includes insurance benefits provided by MRI and a pay rate of $87 per hour paid by the town for full-time work.
The contract originally expired in November 2019, but was extended to July 1.
Still, with the expiration looming, Dillon has not returned requests for information about whether the agreement will be extended again, or if a permanent hire is nearing.
Pattullo said Tuesday he is not aware of exact details, but plans are in place to meet with Dillon "soon" to discuss the town’s needs moving forward.
“I know that there will probably be some changes in terms of my position here,” said Pattullo, now 18 months into his Salem role. “I’m going to still be in place. But I think the manager is working to find a successor police chief. He’s in the process of doing that. I’m just not sure of the time frame.”
Pattulo said his work at the department will drop to “more of a part-time advisory position, not a full-time daily response." He is not aware of a change in pay, he said.
He elaborated on what is likely to become his new daily involvement: morning meetings with command staff followed by more space for them to operate independently.
“I’d be in touch with them and respond if necessary,” said Pattullo.
MRI places interim chiefs and civilian administrators “on a regular basis,” according to Pattullo. But the length of each contract varies.
“Sometimes it’s two to four months. Sometimes it’s six to eight,” he said. “This one has been close to 18 months. An important point is that we like to stay on board until there’s a good transition, and that’s what we’re doing here. If the town isn’t ready, we’re not going to abandon the assignment.”
In terms of how the department is functioning in the midst of national protests against police brutality and massive internal changes in recent years, Pattullo said, “I think we’re doing extremely well.”
Selectman Bryant said he would like a report from Dillon and Pattullo outlining policy changes and improvements within the department since Pattullo's hire.
“We have a good command structure in place,” Pattullo said. “We have a great team that works together very well. These are obviously trying times for policing. We’re fortunate to have a fantastic crew in Salem that comes to work every day to do the best they can.”
The change-up in leadership involves Donovan and two other top-ranking officers — Rob Morin, retired, and Michael Wagner — remaining under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal wrongdoing. Those cases have seen little movement in the 17 months since being announced by the AG.
A fourth, Michael Verrocchi, has been criminally charged with reckless conduct with a deadly weapon and disobeying a police officer based on an incident from 2012. As of press time for this article, a judge had not yet ruled on a recent motion to dismiss the case.
The investigations that left two top-ranking officers on paid leave were originally cited as the reason why Dillon had not made a hire for chief or promoted from within.