In the Arena: Questions in wake of Chip Dodge probe

Friday, October 27, 2017

By Chris Collins

Can Chip Dodge continue to serve as Montague’s police chief? That seems to be the big question in the wake of the recent Recorder exclusive detailing the investigation of the mishandling of the department’s drug drop-off box, and Dodge’s subsequent admission that is a recovering opioid addict.

The drop-off box story was one I’d heard rumblings about for the better part of a year, and good on the Recorder for getting it. The addiction angle was one that caught me by surprise, as I’m sure were a lot of other Montague taxpayers, some of whom probably had much stronger responses.

It took guts for Dodge to make that admission, even though he was kind of forced into it once the Recorder had the goods. Many will admire that courage, while others may find it more than a little unsettling.

Most of us understand by now that addiction to these types of drugs cuts across all socio-economic backgrounds. Addicts no longer fit the profile of the stereotypical, strung-out “usual suspects.” A lot of seemingly normal, socially-productive people have been snared in this web, Dodge among them.

The difference, however, is that those people don’t carry a badge, a gun, handcuffs and run a paramilitary organization in a small community, which has battled a pretty significant drug problem for many years.

Though there is no indication that Dodge will relapse, anyone who knows anything about addiction will tell you that is always a possibility — and I’ve got to believe there is a certain segment of Montague’s population which is going to be uncomfortable with that.

Some will likely be even more militant and demand that Dodge resign. Montague Town Meeting member David Detmold got that ball rolling with a scathing letter in the Montague Reporter this past week.

It wasn’t a huge surprise. Detmold has never been a big Dodge fan, and damn near got thrown out of a town meeting this past winter when he tried, in very loud terms, to get some answers not only about the drug box investigation, but the DA’s decision to remove Montague from the Anti-Crime Task Force — a status which, according to a letter received by the town Thursday, will not be restored as long as Dodge is chief.

“That was the message, although the DA’s office will continue to prosecute crimes, but we won’t be part of the task force unless there is a personnel change,” Town Administrator Steve Ellis said.

I’m sure others will express sentiments similar to Detmold’s, just as I expect a few people to try to explain it away with the argument that addiction is a disease, and should be treated like any other. What if Dodge had cancer, or diabetes, but still was able to perform his duties? Should he still be forced to resign?

I would argue that is not the same, largely because of the position in question. A police chief is more than just a “top cop” in a given department. He or she is the political face of law enforcement in their community, and as has been pointed out on numerous occasions, politics is about perception — and that’s a big problem for Dodge right now.

Another problem exists within the department itself. During his interview with investigators, Dodge left the impression that there may have been other officers in his department who had access to the contents of the drug box. That attempt to create a bit of reasonable doubt did not sit well with the police union, which issued a blistering statement in the week following the story, which made it clear that the rank-and-file did not appreciate having their integrity called into question “without any basis whatsoever.”

“Substance abuse is a serious issue and one that has unfortunately plagued both our town and our country for a long time, (and) Montague officers, like police everywhere, are on the front lines of this fight every day,” the statement read. “We deal head-on with the unfortunate domino effects of this addiction ... the credibility of our members was never in question, and we remain committed to help those impacted by this nationwide epidemic.”

The response was strong enough to force the Montague Selectboard to issue a statement through Town Administrator Steven Ellis, reinforcing the board’s support for the department’s officers. I’m not sure how much weight that will carry, considering that the board issued that same vote of confidence for Dodge not long after his reinstatement.

Though nothing in the union statement indicated that the officers won’t be willing to work for Dodge, that’s obviously a concern moving forward, but I don’t think a major one. These guys are professionals and they are going to work for whoever is in charge. Whether they will do so happily is another matter entirely.

Though there will be those who are probably relishing in Dodge’s misfortune, I’m not among them. I like the guy, and always have. I believe he’s a good person, a solid community guy, and family man who has served his town well for a long time.

Whether he can regain the credibility necessary to continue that service very much remains to be seen.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.