Editorial: Time for Montague police to regroup, rebuild as Dodge saga concludes

  • Former Montague Police Chief Chip Dodge during his swearing in ceremony. Recorder file photo

Friday, March 09, 2018

There are so many viewpoints from which to see the sad story of Chip Dodge, Montague’s police chief who essentially was pressured into resigning this month. But from almost any perspective, circumstances surrounding Dodge’s handling of the Montague Police Department medication drop box, the subsequent Attorney General’s Office investigation and Dodge’s response to that probe, created an impossible situation — for the chief and his Selectboard.

The trouble for the town and for Dodge first emerged into public view — barely — in June of 2016, when AG state police investigators showed up at Town Hall to look into allegations someone was stealing opioid painkillers from the medication drop box at the police station.

Scrutiny fell on Dodge because he had essentially put himself in charge of handling the prescription drugs and was in recovery for painkiller addiction, which he admitted during the state police probe, but which was something they likely already suspected.

When the investigators presented their concerns to the town leaders, Dodge was suspended for three days, and when the investigators left, the Selectboard reinstated Dodge with a full-throated endorsement, but no public explanation for the suspension or the investigation.

We always assumed that the Selectboard learned of their chief’s addiction problem in the closed-door meeting they had with him at that point, and supported him in his recovery, given the addiction started unwittingly the way it has for so many — with a medicine prescribed by a doctor for pain. When Dodge discovered his dependency, he sought and received medically assisted treatment for the addiction, he told the Recorder.

But District Attorney David Sullivan’s office took a dimmer view of a police chief who was under investigation for possible drug theft. He suspended the department from the DA’s drop box program and its regional anti-crime task force while the AG probe was pending. The irony here was that Sullivan is a co-founder of the regional opioid task force, which for the past five years has been fighting the very epidemic that had laid claim to Dodge’s life and career.

Ultimately, the AG’s office concluded its probe and found no probable wrongdoing on anyone’s part, but the Montague Police Department was tainted. The DA’s office, which was privy to the AG’s investigation, reinstated the Montague drug drop box but only under strict protocols and the condition that Dodge not handle the drugs. And the area police chiefs, Dodge’s peers who lead the DA’s regional anti-crime task force, refused to work with Montague as long as Dodge was chief. Clearly, trust had been lost, fairly or unfairly.

Later, when the details of the AG’s interview with Dodge became public through reporting by the Recorder, the chief also lost the confidence of his troops. The unions, representing both his patrol officers and his sergeants, wrote public letters to the Selectboard declaring they didn’t trust their chief because his statements to the AG’s office deflected blame for possible stolen drugs on them — basically throwing them under the bus.

At the same time, as Dodge’s addiction and recovery became public through newspaper stories, the chief received support from the recovery community, which sadly is an ever-growing segment of our world. He put an indelible face to the often-repeated observation that addiction can afflict anyone in all walks of life.

Even if you accept that a person addicted to opioids or in recovery is not a criminal, but someone with a dreadful medical affliction, the selectmen had a chief who enjoyed the support of neither his troops nor his peers. He was distrusted by many in the community who thought his explanations for how drugs may have gone missing didn’t ring true, and others who just may feel that someone in recovery isn’t suited to carry the special responsibilities of a police chief.

So, what were the selectmen to do?

The answer seems to have been to hire an experienced private investigator who specializes in internal police investigations.

Alfred P. Donovan’s report to the Selectboard concluded Dodge had violated several department rules and regulations as well as parts of the department’s Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, through his actions around handling of the drug drop box and related matters. The report’s conclusions, however obliquely, were damning.

Donovan stated that credibility, honesty, integrity and competence are “non-negotiable attributes of all law-enforcement personnel,” especially for the position of chief. Donovan concluded by stating the police department would continue to have diminished public trust as long as Dodge is chief.

It was this report that gave the selectmen the leverage needed to force Dodge out.

To their credit, the Montague selectmen have worked very hard to thread the needle of protecting the chief’s privacy through this whole affair and of fulfilling their duty to the town — to ensure the integrity and smooth operation of the Police Department. And while we aren’t fans of closed-door meetings, in this case we were glad to see the series of executive sessions over the past several weeks about Dodge’s exit arrangement were followed immediately by public release of the Donovan report, and the termination agreement signed by the town and Dodge.

We wish it had never come to this, but if you believe Donovan’s report, and read Dodge’s own responses to the state police questioning, it had to come to this, for everyone’s sake.