FAIRFIELD — One of the first big jobs facing Fairfield’s new police chief will be addressing concerns raised in an independent review, which says the department lacks a clear chain of command, among other problems.

Thomas Gould took over as police chief in mid-July, succeeding former Chief John Emery, who resigned in March. Skowhegan police have charged Emery with driving under the influence in December.

While the department was under interim leadership, the Fairfield Town Council hired the Maine Chiefs of Police Association to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the department and to make recommendations. The reviews, a regular service offered by the chiefs association, are conducted in a number of Maine’s police departments every year.

The review panel, made up of three veteran police chiefs, found that the department’s employees have suffered low morale as they worked under out-of-date, boiler-plate policies, no clear command structure, and a perception that some administrators within the department have played favorites in hiring and promotions.

Gould said he is taking steps to resolve the issues raised during the review, which he said are mostly a matter of having the proper paperwork in place.

“The officers for the most part do an excellent job,” he said. “It’s just a matter of cleaning up the paperwork.”

Fairfield Town Council member Harold “Jim” Murray said he felt the review was fair, and that it needed to be done to resolve issues in the department, which has 10 full-time officers and nine part-time officers.

He said he feels Gould will fix the problems the panel uncovered, and that the department is now on the right path.

During staff interviews, review panel members were surprised to learn that different employees had different ideas about who was second in command, they wrote.

Their first recommendation was for the new chief “to establish clear lines of authority quickly.”

While there were many criticisms, the panel found that none of the issues were insurmountable.

“With effective leadership, a defined chain of command, written policies and increased training, the Fairfield Police Department can resolve any current issues,” they wrote, describing the staff as “a dedicated group.”

Most of Fairfield’s policies and procedures, according to the report, were adopted without modification in 2006 and have not been updated since.

The practice has resulted in “serious, significant issues” that open the town to a risk of legal liability, the panel members wrote.

The report called a practice of allowing officers to review the policies on their own without supervision or having to answer questions about the material afterward as “a disaster in the making.”

Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said the problems in Fairfield’s department are not unusual. There isn’t a police department in the state that could go through a review without generating some recommended changes, he said.

As best practices modernize with increasing emphasis on documentation and technology, many departments with long-standing administrators get left behind, Schwartz said.

“This is nothing to do with the previous chief, but when you’re chief and you’ve been in the job for eight or 10 years, there’s ways that you do things,” he said. “When a person’s been in a place a long time, you become routine and things need to be perked up.”

Emery, whose criminal case is scheduled for a hearing in Somerset County Superior Court on Sept. 18, served the department for 27 years, including 12 as chief. Emery went on an extended leave of absence after a Dec. 24 incident on Palmer Road in Skowhegan, where Emery lives. On that day, 15 law enforcement officials, some high-ranking, from three agencies responded to a call about a “mental subject,” a police radio term for someone who is acting strangely or irrationally.

Officials have remained tight-lipped about whether the Palmer Road call was related to Emery, who took a leave of absence from work two days later. Months later, Skowhegan police charged Emery with drunken driving on Dec. 24.

Emery did not return a phone call Monday seeking comment.

Panel members wrote that without job descriptions, an organizational chart, or a clear chain of command, Fairfield police “employees often seek out a supervisor of their choice to obtain permission, information or advice.”

The panel urged the department to perform more consistent, and even-handed, employee performance evaluations.

“Discipline within the agency has broken down,” the panel members wrote.

Chief Gould steps in

The panel members anticipated the arrival of Gould, who was hired shortly before the report was completed.

“The new chief needs to be a strong leader who is conscious of employees’ perception that the Laissez-faire-style of the prior administration contributed to some organizational dysfunction,” the panel members wrote.

Gould validated the process of the review, which he called “pretty accurate,” and which he said helped him to identify problems needing immediate attention. Gould said that the report is not an exact blueprint of his future plans for the department, but that “it’s pretty close to the blueprint.”

“The very first step is going to be clearing up the chain of command,” he said.

Gould said he is working on job descriptions for each position this week and that, within two weeks, he hopes to announce a second-in-command from the existing pool of three sergeants.

It will take about six months or more to review all of the policies and procedures, which Gould said are printed in a 6-inch-thick binder. He said he would begin with the most important, and work his way through.

The review panel also found various other issues of concern, including during the hiring process.

“It is apparent that the selection process isn’t consistently followed and that some new hires went through a complete process while others did not,” panel members wrote. “This can lead to an appearance of favoritism and can easily lead to a later discovery that an individual had disqualifying information in their background that a complete process would have elicited.”

Gould said that, if there was a culture of favoritism in the past, it wouldn’t survive while he is chief.

“I can’t speak for past practices on the police department, but there will be none of that in the future,” he said.

Panel members also found “a strong tobacco smoke smell” and a cigarette butt bucket in the station, which they took as evidence of routine employee smoking in the department. The review also noted cigarette burn marks in officer patrol cars.

“The practice of employees smoking within the facility should cease immediately as it is a violation of state law,” it read.

Gould said the smoking issue had been handled before his first day of work.

Department positives

The panel was hired to find problems within the department, and so did not dwell on its strengths.

But members did point out some positive things. They praised, for example, the relationship between department members and the community.

“While it is accurate to say that the Fairfield PD has its detractors, the panel was impressed by the number of citizens who expressed confidence in the individual officers of the police department and viewed them favorably,” they wrote.

Reviews of the budget, crime clearance rates, data storage and equipment were generally favorable, although the report did make several recommendations for improvement, including an investment in a better Internet connection for officers, and to train officers in the use of a video camera in the department.

It also said that the department budget — which has been reduced from about $1 million to about $920,000 over the last four years — is adequate.

Fairfield Town Council Chairwoman Tracey Stevens did not respond to a phone call Monday seeking comment on the review.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]