Study: APD solid but improvement possible

High turnover motivated by more than pay, analysis finds

Editor’s note: This article was updated on July 17.

A highly anticipated analysis of the Abington Police Department’s policies and operations determined that it overall performs well compared to other similar departments and has the resources needed to carry out its mission. But the report also confirmed the existence of deep divisions within the department and countered insistences from police leadership that the department’s high turnover rate is predominantly driven by a lower than average pay structure. 

“[Chief David Majenski] strongly believes that there needs to be appropriate adjustments to the compensation package so that Abington is more competitive with similar Massachusetts communities,” the report states. “However, interviews of former employees revealed that many left Abington Police Department for less money than what they were earning.”

The 162-page report, prepared by Municipal Resources Inc., a consultancy firm with experience reviewing law enforcement agencies, offers 53 recommendations on how the department could improve across five core areas, including the department’s organizational structure, management and human resources, written directives, and the office of the chief. 

“It is the intent of this study to inform the police department and local government of recommended changes to enable the Police Department’s leadership to remain agile, energetic, and enlightened to deliver the highest quality police services with the resources available,” the report states. 

The analysis does not raise major red flags and is largely complimentary of the department’s efforts to remain fully accredited by the Massachusetts Police Accreditation Commission. Abington is one of just 86 police departments in Massachusetts to be accredited, which MRI said means the department demonstrates a “willingness to accept external scrutiny and commit to correcting deficiencies to establish or re-establish compliance” with professional policing standards.

Acting Town Manager Scott Lambiase, who has served in the past as a special police officer in Whitman and Duxbury, and started his current position after the study was well underway, said that the report does not contain a “smoking gun” that will directly fix the department’s high turnover. 

“It gives us a pretty good roadmap on how to move forward,” said Lambiase. “It has a lot of different things that will help engage the rank-and-file we have now so that they won’t want to go someplace else.”

MRI presented its findings this past Monday to the Board of Selectmen, who met via Zoom. The board said it will schedule an in-person public meeting in the near future to give residents an opportunity to ask questions about the report’s findings.

Majenski did not return a call seeking comment on the report.  Deputy Chief Chris Cutter, however, sent selectmen a 32-page letter prior to their meeting Monday night rebutting what he characterized as “errors, statements that are not based in fact and statements that may be misleading which could unjustly prejudice a reader.” [Cutter emailed another letter to the Abington News prior to this article being published, but it was erroneously missed. Coverage of that letter can be found here.]

For example, he said MRI failed on numerous occasions to mention that the chief had tried in previous years to implement some of the recommendations through the collective bargaining process but was not successful. In other situations, Cutter writes, policy decisions were made by the Town Manager and Board of Selectmen, such as ending Quinn Bill benefits or not paying stipends for specialized roles.

“So an honest coorelation can be made that the majority of reasons why those who left and those who remain dislike the department is due to those aspects not controlled by any member of management,” he wrote.

Town Meeting in 2019 approved spending up to $30,000 for the study following years of growing concern over reported divisions between the police union and department leadership that was leading to a high turnover rate. MRI cited a news report that found that the department had lost 55 full-time officers and sergeants between 2004 and 2019, or about 13.6 percent of its force annually. “The Rand Center on Quality Policing published a report in that describes turnover greater than 10 [percent] as ‘excessive’,” the report states.

The Board of Selectmen has discussed the problem at multiple public meetings in recent years. The former President of the Abington Police Union Local 476 asked the board to conduct an independent investigation of the situation back in 2016, citing the existence of a “hostile work environment” while leveling multiple accusations of misconduct within the department. And the mother of an Abington officer who took his own life in 2018 has publicly laid some of the blame on stresses caused by problems within the department.  

Selectmen Kevin DiMarzio, who was among those who pushed for an investigation, and sat on the subcommittee that oversaw MRI’s contract, said he found the report “very in-depth, detailed and well-balanced.”

“I do believe that they provided a great path with attainable recommendations to guide the town forward,” he said. “Changes have already been, and will continue to be, made based off those recommendations. I do feel that the town will need to continue with its work implementing the recommendations and it might be best to have MRI stay on and guide both the police department and town officials through all of the recommendations in their final report.”

The report closely reviewed the department’s policies around evidence, use of force, and high-speed pursuit, which MRI classified as “three of the most litigated tasks associated with” law enforcement. They were impressed with what they found in Abington.

“Each was found to be demonstrative of best practices for a law enforcement agency,” the report states. “Directives were articulate, comprehensive, and well presented for ease of use by the agency staff.”

MRI was also surprised to learn that the department has received just 6 complaints of officer misconduct between 2017 and 2019 and launched just 18 total internal affairs investigations despite handling more than 60,000 service calls. As a result of those complaints and investigations, two Abington police officers either resigned or were fired. The report does not provide any more information about the nature of the complaints or identify the officers who left. The report does suggest undertaking a community-wide survey to better understand why a department of Abington’s size has received so few complaints. 

The report offered a number of areas where the department could approve its human resources function, such as attempting to recruit more female officers, better understanding the individual skills of their officers, improving its auxiliary officer program, formalizing the process for selecting Field Training Officers, and implementing an employee performance evaluation system. MRI specifically called out as problematic the fact that some of the department’s acting sergeants have served in that capacity for multiple years without yet passing the sergeants civil service test. 

“Organizational integrity is brought into question, both internally and externally, by the ongoing practice of assigning apparently unqualified persons as Acting Sergeant for prolonged periods of time,” the report says. “In discussions with Chief Majenski, he is of the belief that those in the Acting roles are qualified although unable to pass the written test and without incentive to do so due to allowances found in collective bargaining agreements.” 

Abington does not have a dedicated human resources department or manager.

One major recommendation is that the Abington Police Department should withdraw from the state’s Civil Service process. Just 142 police departments in Massachusetts are still guided by the Civil Service process, with 28 departments withdrawing in recent years, according to the report. Doing so would provide the police chief with more flexibility in recruiting candidates, hiring new officers faster, retaining newer officers longer, and making promotions, the report argues.

The report also concludes that the Abington Police Department is properly funded — once it fills all open positions. The department is authorized for 31 officers, but currently have only 26 in uniform, which contributes to forced overtime and higher caseloads. The COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily closed the state’s police academy, which is delaying the department’s ability to train new hires. 

However, the report also determined that divisions exist within the department, that rank-and-file officers feel shut out from the decision-making process, and there’s room to improve internal communication.

A survey of current and former department personnel found that while 68 percent feel they receive personal and professional satisfaction from their job, just 46 percent agree or strongly agree that the department is a “well-managed organization.” In addition, 38 percent felt that there is a “high level of mutual respect across all ranks within the department,” while 50 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.  

While 45 percent believe internal discipline for policy and rule violations is administered in a fair and consistent manner, 50 percent disagreed. And almost 43 percent said they would leave the department if they had an opportunity to take a similar job with a different employer with comparable pay and benefits.

In his letter, Cutter cast doubt on these conclusions first by highlightning a number of mathematical errors in the agency’s survey alculations, saying the repeated misrepresentations showed a “lack of attention to detail and professionalism by MRI.”

He also questioned the makeup of those surveyed, which included former police officers who had left the department, possibly under cloudy circumstances. “How did MRI verify what these employees were saying to them were fact based prior to publishing opinions in the report?” Cutter asks. “MRI never asked upper management of the department for any background on any of the candidates they interviewed.”

The report said the department’s high turnover rate should not be dismissed or ignored as it comes with direct financial costs to taxpayers and erodes department capabilities and morale. MRI estimated that it costs the town approximately $46,000 to hire and train new officers, many of whom currently leave the department after just a couple years.

“In essence, Abington paid to train the officer for the new employer without recompense. Compounding the problem, the strength and cohesion that a department gains by having experienced staff is diminished and cannot be easily replaced,” according to the report. “The institutional knowledge and experience lost when an officer has five to ten years ‘on the job’ is insurmountable. Often, as much as a generation of policing must pass before the lost real and intellectual investment is recouped.” 

The report identified a number of areas where the department’s leadership can improve, such as revisiting its mission statement and undergoing some strategic planning exercises that directly include rank-and-file officers. Doing so would provide officers with a sense of ownership in department goals and policies.

“All successful efforts resultant from this study are predicated on the basic understanding that two-way communications strategies across the agency require the courage of all parties to tell it like it is, for each member of the agency to be active listeners, and for every member to act in a concerted effort that contributes to the continuous improvement of the Abington Police Department,” the report states. “Organizationally, it is imperative that the Chief of Police create the baseline and atmosphere needed to open and maintain lines of truly effective communication with stakeholders.”

Cutter said in his letter that Chief Majenski just revised the department’s mission statement last year, using input from superior officers — but that MRI never asked the department leadership team about it.

According to the survey condicted by MRI, former Abington officers said money wasn’t the driving factor in their decision to leave. The median salary for a police officer in the area is approximately $50,000 to $58,000. In Abington, the salary range is $47,000 to $56,000.

Selectmen Chairman Tim Chapin, who has also been vocal in his concerns about police department turnover, said he’s overall satisfied with the report.

“It was designed to be a wide-ranging look into every aspect of the department, not just the turnover,” he said. “There’s more in the report we can narrow down later if we want to look into changing certain things.”

The report is heavily redacted in some areas, with full paragraphs and pages blacked out. Sections blacked out touch on the current state of the department, the police chief, and specific survey comments made by past and present personnel.

Lambiase also confirmed that Majenski has rescinded a letter he sent to the former Town Manager in April 2019 announcing his intention to retire in 2021.

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