Possible cop departures again an issue for Abington

Abington Police Union MassCop Local 476 President Joseph Davern raised some eyebrows this week when he told selectmen nearly half of the town’s cops are ready to walk out the door.  

“We’re about to hemorrhage a lot of police officers,” he told the board during its public meeting Monday, “and it’s going to be imminent.”

The revelation seemed to shatter the belief that the town had made significant gains improving working conditions at the Abington Police Department, and reversed a troubling trend of officers transferring out early in their careers. A 2020 study of department management practices quoted a newspaper article that found 55 full-time officers and sergeants had left the Abington Police Department between 2004 and 2019 — an annual turnover rate of about 13 percent that left the department perennially short-staffed. 

But the current situation may be less dire than presented Monday, and instead tied to the union’s ongoing contract negotiations.  

In a letter Davern sent to selectmen prior to Monday’s meeting – he also personally handed a copy to newly elected selectman Alex Hagerty during the meeting – he claimed 11 police officers were ready to leave the department if the town didn’t agree to restore education-related bonuses. The contents of the letter were described to Abington News by a town official who received a copy. 

Davern declined an opportunity to discuss the letter or current working conditions inside the department. “[I] am unable to comment due to specific obligations,” he wrote in an email. 

Selectmen, as well as Town Manager Scott Lambiase, declined to get into details about the negotiations. But a couple said Davern’s comments caught them off guard.

“This latest thing seems to be coming as a surprise to me,” new Board of Selectmen Chairman Kevin DiMarzio said in an interview. 

“It was surprising that he did bring it out in public,” Lambiase said. 

The issue came up during a board discussion on who has the authority to approve employee transfers when the department head is not available. DiMarzio said he requested the agenda item but it wasn’t specifically in regards to the police department. Lambiase said he’s working with town counsel to put together an official policy. 

Town officials confirmed that two Abington police officers recently decided to transfer out of the department. In addition, 11 police officers have signed up to take the civil service exam needed before they can request a transfer. 

The Abington Police Department is budgeted for 30 full-time positions, including the chief and deputy chief jobs. Deputy Chief Chris Cutter said he currently has 23 officers in uniform following Chief David Majenski taking personal time off prior to his retirement, the retirement of one officer, the transfers of the two officers, and one officer out on active military duty. Two officers are currently attending the police academy, and Cutter said he is in the process of hiring one or two more.  

“It’s no secret that the department has been struggling with retention and I’ve been working very hard since I partially took over in January to improve upon this,” Cutter said. “With that said, there are some people that have been wanting to leave since as far back as early in 2020. Two officers have been allowed to leave this year through the Civil Service Lateral Transfer process.”

In order for a police officer to transfer to another police department, they typically have to first take a civil service exam to determine where they rank on that department’s list of eligible candidates. The test is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks.  (CLARIFICATION: The Police Chief needs to sign off on transfers to different departments. However, if an officer takes a civil service exam and is then hired off that list, Police Chief sign-off isn’t needed.)

Lambiase and Cutter said that even if 11 officers formally request to transfer out of Abington, it’s ultimately up to the town whether to allow it. While lateral transfers are usually approved, that won’t happen if it means Abington will be left short staffed, they said.

“It can be denied if it would render the department in a position it can’t fill shifts or provide services,” Lambiase said. “As far as everybody hanging up their badges and moving to another town all at once, that’s not likely to happen.”

Tensions between the police union and town and department leadership roiled for several years and featured the union filing multiple legal complaints and lawsuits, including one in federal court. Things came to a head in 2019 when selectmen sponsored a successful Town Meeting article appropriating money for a department management study. That study found that the department stacked up well for a department of its size, but did identify multiple areas in need of improvement. 

The unusually high number of transfers between 2004 and 2019 were initially attributed to both divisions between rank-and-file and department leadership, and below average base pay. Since then, the last union contract brought the base pay up to the median average of similar sized local departments;  the town and Chief Majenski in August agreed to a retirement deal; and Deputy Cutter, after initially criticizing the management study’s findings, has spent the past nine months implementing many of those recommendations. 

“I work with a great group of guys that are working hard to offer a great service to the people of Abington and this will not stop,” Cutter said. “It may take me time, but I’m focused on the service we provide and the safety and wellbeing of the officers who give so much.”

Selectman Alex Bezanson said he also was surprised by the union’s insistence that officers were again dissatisfied. 

“It kind of blindsided us,” he said. “I understood the problem at the police department was management, and we have addressed that and continue to address that.”

Lambiase, DiMarzio, and Bezanson each said that a pay comparison is part of the ongoing contract discussions, and if it shows that Abington police officers are underpaid compared to surrounding towns, it will be negotiated. 

“If we have a retention problem, we want to find out why we have a retention problem,” Lambiase said. “If we have a recruitment problem, we want to find out why we have a recruitment problem.”

Selectmen Tim Chapin, Mike Kolodziej, and Alex Hagerty declined to specifically comment on Davern’s statements, citing ongoing collective bargaining discussions.

“The town management and the Board of Selectmen are committed to the recruitment and retention of Abington’s dedicated Police officers,” Hagerty said in a statement. “Abington is fortunate to have a devoted police force and I am anticipating informative discussions with our officers.”

Abington police officers — along with most police officers across Massachusetts — used to receive sizable pay bumps upon completing degree programs. Under the so-called Quinn Bill, cities and towns split the cost of the pay increases with the state. The state zeroed out its portion of funding about a decade ago. Abington ended its bonus program as part of concessions with the union during a subsequent contract deal, however it appears the union is trying to restore the benefit. 

Town officials also pointed out that the board on Monday agreed to hire Public Safety Consultants, LLC to conduct a search for the next Abington Police Chief. The Abington Town Charter says a panel of three outside people must conduct a preliminary search and make recommendations to the Town Manager, who ultimately will decide who to hire. 

Lambiase said he is looking for a couple volunteers from the community to help provide input and feedback during the process. This could include serving as a bridge between Abington police officers who have thoughts but are reluctant to voice them publicly.

An application to serve as one of these community representatives to the search committee is available here.

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