The true heroes of our society are the public safety officers who risk their well being to provide us a safer community. Under Chief Gary Gemme’s leadership, the Department has successfully implemented the Community Policing Model, created the Community Impact Division, and built a talented group of superior officers–all while dealing with the constraints of a shrinking budget.
Our respect for police officers and the work they do is based on a sacred trust. We expect that the leaders of our police department hold themselves to the highest police standards–one that the Chief now seems willing to break.
Over the past few years Chief Gemme has eroded the public’s trust with several different actions. First, the coerced confession of a 16 year old girl by two Worcester Police Detectives, uncovered by WBUR reporter David Boeri, is disturbing by itself. The shocking interrogation techniques led to a teenage girl spending nearly three years in jail. Adding to this already unfortunate situation is Chief Gemme’s unwillingness to acknowledge at least the potential of wrong doing by Detectives under his charge.
Unfortunately this incident does not stand alone where poor judgment is concerned. In the case of Officer Mark Rojas, Gemme ignored our public records law, which requires public bodies to respond within 10 working days, by taking almost 8 months to produce requested
records by a media outlet. When pressure grew, Gemme thumbed his nose at the law by producing a largely blacked out document–forcing the City to spend time and money on needless litigation.
Another egregious breaking of our sacred trust is a criminal case involving Officer David Rawlston. After an investigation by highly respected Sgt. Mark Richardson and the D.A. no charges were filed against Rawlston. On March 13, 2009 then-Captain Edward McGinn testified under oath that Gemme directed him to have Sgt. Richardson rewrite his report, and if he refused this order he would be transferred out of the Detective Bureau. To the credit of Deputy Chief McGinn, he did not act on Gemme’s order and Sgt. Richardson was in fact transferred out of the Bureau. Gemme continued to show poor judgment when he demanded the City ignore the rulings of two independent arbitrators and a Superior Court judge and appeal the reinstatement of Rawlston.
After members of the City Council questioned the professionalism of 4 WPD press releases which criticized and at times personally attacked people who questioned WPD actions, Gemme opened a personal Twitter account. He responded to a City Councilor’s reference to the releases as sophomoric by posting “Food fights tend to be “sophornoric” never pretty.. Sometimes they are necessary and worthwhile.. Particularly when you are right..” After Judge Kenton Walker ruled against the WPD he posted “Judge Kenton-Walker. Cognitive bias. What more can be said?” These actions are childish and not ones you would expect from a police chief of a major city.
Based on the forgoing it is time to take action. However, Chief Gemme’s contract produces some complications. Per this document “The City shall defend . . . against any tort, constitutional claim, professional liability, claim, or demand, or other legal action, whether groundless or otherwise, arising out of an alleged act or omission occurring in the performance of his duties . . . and “If the . . . working relationship ceases to exist, Mr. Gemme shall have the option of retaining his rights and privileges under civil service rules . . . and remain in the position of Chief of Police or return to his civil service rank of captain . . . Any attempt by the City to remove Mr. Gemme or begin formal progressive discipline will be considered a cessation of the working relationship.”
In short, the City must absorb any legal costs as a result of Chief Gemme’s poor decision making and at the same time he retains a certain degree of contractual infallibility. The problem is Chief Gemme can ignore the rule of law and at the same time potentially place the City in grave financial danger.
To be clear–Chief Gemme is not a scapegoat here but rather a willing participant in enabling abuse of the law. He has a professional and moral obligation to ensure that the laws set forth by the Judícial and Legislative branches of government are enforced. While I consider loyalty one of man’s greatest traits Chief Gemme is wrong, dead wrong, to defend these actions and has chosen to turn his back on the oath he took, now believing that only his opinion matters, that he alone is judge and jury.
Due to Mr. Gemme’s unusual contract the City Manager is limited in ways to criticize or reprimand him. Well I signed no such agreement and neither did the citizens of Worcester–it’s well past the time for Chief Gemme to resign or be removed and end our descent into this warped déjà vu of “Dysfunction Junction”.
Note: An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in today’s Telegram & Gazette.