For the last three weeks, representatives of the Aberdeen Police Department and Municipal Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 128 have been trying to arrange a meeting with newly elected Mayor Mike Bennett.
In that time, at least two letters of invitation sent to Bennett from the FOP have been met with no response, yet the new mayor has found time to meet with Aberdeen’s auxiliary police department – a group in which Bennett’s unofficial and ultimately unsuccessful running mate Steve Johnson is a member.
What’s more, city police officers are now concerned about what they have been told will be the beginning of informal interviews this week conducted by members of Bennett’s 30-person transition team.
“The current concern is that we are not confident in some of the members of the transition team. We believe that there is a conflict of interest and we want to ensure we are represented fairly and accurately. Given the makeup of the team we requested the meeting to give the mayor the majority point of view,” said Aberdeen police officer and FOP Lodge 128 acting president David Swain.
Swain and the FOP sent its first letter to Bennett sometime around Nov. 14 and, when that was met with no response, issued a second, identical letter around Nov. 28 to Bennett and the each member of the Aberdeen City Council.
What follows is the full text of that letter:
Congratulations on your successful campaign and election.
As expected with any major change in leadership, there are many rumors being perpetuated regarding upcoming changes that may be planned. Many of these rumors are causing concern to the members of the Police Department. Specific rumors regarding the transition team that has been assembled, its members, its purpose with regards to the police department, and the methods that it will employ to arrive at its recommendations are of particular concern.
We would like to meet with each of you personally, in hopes of confirming or dispelling the merits of these rumors, alleviating the concerns of the officers, and offering our views regarding the current state of the police department, as well as identify any way we can be of assistance with the transition.
There is concern that our true perspectives are not and will not be accurately represented to you and the council and we would like the opportunity to express them in person.
We believe that this meeting will do a lot to preserve the morale of the department which at this point seems to be suffering from the rumors, unanswered questions and lack of direct representation with the mayor and the council members.
We look forward to your response and hope a meeting can be scheduled quickly.
As of Tuesday morning, Swain had been in touch with city council members Mike Hiob and Ron Kupferman and understood that Ruth Ann Young wanted to meet with the FOP, but had yet to receive a reply from either Bennett or city council president Ruth Elliott – who strongly supported Bennett in his mayoral bid.
“All the FOP is trying to do at this point is get our true needs addressed and open up dialogue with the new administration. We find it to be insulting that he would meet with the auxiliary police before even talking with us. Not just the FOP, but just to come into the station and introduce himself to us,” Swain said.
To be clear, Swain said the FOP, which represents law enforcement officers in Aberdeen, Bel Air and Havre de Grace, is focused on issues of officer safety, pay and retirement.
“What needs to be clear is that we do not want to meet to make demands or bully anyone, only to provide the best representation for our members and make sure any actions taken by or recommendation made by a transition team are legal under the Law Enforcement Officers Bill or Rights [LEOBR] and in the best interest of the entire department,” Swain added.
The FOP became additionally stressed this week when members heard word that Bennett’s transition team, a group of unsuccessful candidates, community activists, city business people and outside experts headed by Democratic leader and former state senator Art Helton, would be conducting informal interviews with city police officers.
Helton confirmed Tuesday that subdivisions of the transition team had indeed started to fan out into city hall to meet with city officials and employees as part of the group’s fact-finding mission.
“The Budget sub-committee has met and outlined a list of information they need. They are meeting Tuesday night with Doug Miller and the finance Director [Opiribo] Jack to go over some of this info. The W& S and infrastructure sub-committee has met for a lengthy session with [city public works director Matt] Lapinsky and some of his folks (water). They are meeting again this week for more briefings on Sewer issues. The Safety committee is gathering info. that they have requested. The Administrative committee is moving a little slower than planned, but then again they have a large assignment and are a rather large group,” Helton wrote in an email Tuesday.
While Helton didn’t specifically mention any meeting between the transition team and the police department, Swain said the FOP has already contacted its attorney about an issue it sees with “a member of the team who should not be making recommendations about the department because of a conflict of interest.”
That transition team member, specifically, is Rick Denu – a former Aberdeen police officer who recently lost his bid for a seat on the city council. Although not officially connected, Denu was often linked to Bennett’s mayoral campaign. Denu isn’t the only failed city council candidate on Bennett’s transition team. He shares that distinction with Johnson, Bernard DeWitt and Bruce Garner.
The FOP’s concern apparently stems from an ongoing police investigation involving the circumstances by which Denu abruptly resigned from the department. Regardless of why he quit, Denu apparently left in his wake some sort of ongoing investigation involving the Aberdeen Police Department.
“It is our understanding that Rick Denu is part of the transition team for the department. There is an ongoing departmental investigation that is being conducted by the state police. Although I cannot comment on the details of the investigation I do know that Rick Denu is involved and he is the reason for the investigation, which was started prior to his leaving the department. We believe that this could create a problem if a person that opened an investigation claiming wrong doing by the department is allowed to conduct interviews of police and make recommendation about our policies and procedures before his investigation is concluded,” Swain said.
Swain went on to say the FOP has no problem with any of the other members of the transition team, but believes it would be inappropriate for Denu to be involved in any police matters, given his history with the department.
“You have to ask the question, is it appropriate, and whose purpose does it serve for Rick to have any input on our affairs? How is he qualified to make any decisions about our policies and what are his motives? Seems to me that if you know he already has a problem than there is no way he can be objective and unbiased,” Swain said.
The FOP remains unsure why the transition team is interviewing police officers and Swain said, until a purpose has been stated, members of the lodge will be made aware that they do not have to talk to anyone according to the LEOBR.
Helton said any interviews would fit into the general assignment tasked to the transition team.
“Let me state again the entire assignment for the transition team is fact finding in order to present a comprehensive assemblage of information to Mayor Bennett. There are no specific targets or people that are being singled out in this process,” he added.
Further, Helton suggested he thinks the alleged meeting with the auxiliary police was “more of a casual stop by” with “no purpose or subject to it.”
“I wouldn’t believe there is any reason for the Mayor to meet with the FOP yet. I’m sure he will meet with them at a time he has something to discuss with them. He hasn’t been on the job a month yet and there are other folks he also wants to meet that time has not allowed,” Helton wrote.
Helton also pointed out the transition team will brief Bennett on its findings as part of its public safety evaluation.
His suggestion to the FOP?
“They need to calm down and let things take a normal course. Be patient.”