The Abington Police Department has disbanded one of its K-9 units. The reason why depends on who is asked.
Officer John Sayers says in September he was called back to the station mid-shift, met by Chief David Del Papa and two sergeants, told his special assignment as a K-9 officer was over, and ordered to drive his partner of three years, Kano, to the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department.
Sayers, who was elected president of the Abington Police Union MassCOP Local 476 in June, feels it wasn’t a coincidence the change came days after he filed a hostile work environment complaint against his supervisor.
“I lost my partner and a member of my family,” Sayers said about losing Kano. “It’s had an emotional effect on me and my family.”
An attorney for the town says the unit was disbanded based on a staffing decision made by Del Papa.
“The Chief’s decision was predicated on making the best use of the limited staffing available,” said John Clifford, of Clifford & Kenny, which represents the town on labor matters. “Given the broad availability of K9 services through other sources, Chief Del Papa determined that the overall public safety needs of the citizens of Abington were best served by this decision. That does not preclude revisiting the issue at some later time.”
Clifford said the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager Scott Lambiase were made aware by Del Papa that he was “considering ending” the K-9 program, and Del Papa, under the town’s strong chief rules, ultimately has the authority to make the decision.
Abington selectmen declined to comment on the decision to disband the K-9 unit, as Sayers is appealing the move.
“I am aware of the matter and have had discussions with the Town Manager regarding the same but because this is being adjudicated in another forum it would not be appropriate for me to comment further until the matter is resolved,” said Selectman Kevin Donovan.
Selectmen Chairman Alex Hagerty referred a reporter to Clifford’s emailed statement.
The conflict marks the most public setback in the town’s effort to end years of acrimony between rank-and-file officers and police department leadership, which had contributed to a startling rate of departures from the department prior to Del Papa’s appointment as chief in August 2021.
The Abington Police union under previous presidents spent years battling former chief David Majenski, going so far as filing a federal lawsuit in 2016. That lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. Majenski stepped way from day-to-day management of the department in December 2020, spent the next eight months taking accrued personal time, and officially retired in August 2021.
Sayers, who is a Navy veteran, was named K9 officer in 2021 after the department received a $27,500 grant from the Stanton Foundation that convered the cost of buying and training Kano. Kano was initially trained as a tracking dog and has helped search for people lost in the woods or running from law enforcement, Sayers said. It was also being trained to serch for narcotics.
Kano was credited by the department with helping track down a stabbing suspect in June. Sayers said over the past three years Kano has assisted on several searches, including missing children, and suspects hiding from police.
Clifford said if Abington Police need a K-9, it will request mutual aid from Weymouth, Rockland, Holbrook, and Brockton, which each abut Abington and have K-9 units.
“We also have access to K9 services from the Plymouth County Sheriff’s Department, the State Police, and the Town of Braintree,” he said.
Sayers was not allowed to keep Kano because it is being returned to the Stanton Foundation, Clifford said.
In an interview with Abington News that also included attorneys with MassCOP, Sayers insisted that multiple Abington officers, including himself, feel they have been targeted by Del Papa and other superior officers over the past year.
Sayers was reprimanded back in January after causing “significant” damage to Reilly Field with his cruiser. The written reprimand landed him on the POST Commission list of Massachusetts officers who have been disciplined. Sayers said he was up at Reilly Field training Kano, the damage to the grass field was minor, and that he feels the reprimand was a heavy-handed response by Del Papa.
Sayers said officers, including himself have eight grievances pending against the department, including one that he filed on Sept. 21 against his sergeant accusing him of creating a hostile work environment. He said on Sept. 24, he was called back to the station where Del Papa, the sergeant he filed the complaint against, and a second sergeant were waiting for him with a letter telling him he was no longer the K-9 officer.
Sayers said he was given no advance notice that Del Papa was considering ending the K-9 unit. He had not been placed on a performance improvement plan, and says that Kano was up-to-date on his training.
“[Kano] was an asset for the town,” said Sayers.
The town declined to answer questions about the timing of the decision to end the program, the effectiveness of the K-9 unit, or Sayers performance as a handler.
“[T]he Town must respect the privacy rights of the employees involved, and we respectfully decline to comment on any personnel matter or pending litigation,” Clifford said. “All of our public safety employees are represented by their union and by counsel, and the Town is always open to discuss any issues of mutual concern with the employee’s legal representatives. We cannot, however, have those discussions in a public forum.”
Abington Police still employs one other K-9 unit: Harlow, a golden lab, which was obtained in 2021 as a comfort dog, and is currently assigned to School Resource Officer Gladys Morgan. Harlow was originally assigned to former Abington police officer Joshua Heal, who left following an investigation into his involvement with the Stoughton Police scandal.
More than 60 officers and sergeants have left or transferred out of the Abington Police Department since 2004. The department has historically been budgeted for 31 total officers, including the chief, but hasn’t had a full roster in years. After a round of departures in 2021, the number of uniformed Abington officers briefly dropped into the teens.
Between the new chief, multiple rounds of new hires, a series of internal administrative changes, and a new contract that boosted pay and benefits, departures have stopped and the department roster has grown. There are 23 officers currently listed on the department’s website.
[Correction: Abington News incorrectly described Cutter’s request. It has been updated. Abington News apologizes for the error.]
APD faces other complaints
Del Papa also faces accusations from another officer, Kevin Cutter, that he’s denied his request for a leave due to injuries on the job. Cutter’s wife this week took the unusual step of posting about her husband’s battle with PTSD from his days in the military, as well as responding to multiple traumatic incidents as an Abington Police officer.
“So now I am reaching out for help and support, to help him get the justice he deserves,” she wrote. “It is hard to get better when you are worried about supporting your family while healing from trauma because the sick days you have built up over the past 11 years are now gone.”
Abington attorneys and selectmen declined to comment on the post and Cutter’s employment status.
“As Chair, I continue to conduct a dialogue with the Town Manager and Abington’s Labor Counsel on this sensitive personnel matter,” Hagerty said in an email to Abington News. “Under HIPPA Laws, it would not be legally suitable for me to comment. I have the duty to protect our employees’ rights as the matter moves forward.”
Cutter was reprimanded in 2022 for making comments critical of the Abington Board of Selectmen on social media, according to the POST Commission. He is the nephew of former Abington Deputy Chief Chris Cutter, who left the department in 2021.