HomeNewsSelect Board aims to fix typo that made Police Chief “weak”

Select Board aims to fix typo that made Police Chief “weak”

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The Hopkinton Select Board recently shared the agenda for their Tuesday, January 30 meeting, and it included an outline of proposed articles for the Annual Town Meeting warrant. Near the bottom of the list is a proposed warrant article that determines the chief of police’s powers in our town:

Amend Charter – Correct statutory reference in Section 3-1(d) to M.G.L.c.41, §97A (not §97) to confirm the Police Chief’s status as a “strong chief.” (Sponsor: Select Board)

To unpack the significance of this, we must rewind the clock to May 15, 2006 when Hopkinton adopted its first Home Rule Charter, or more simply described, our town’s Constitution. In drafting the document, the Charter Commission created a Statement of Major Differences that described how our charter differed with existing laws of the town. Notably, it included this line:

The position of Police Chief is changed from a weak chief to a strong chief. This brings the degree of autonomy for this position more in line with that of the Fire Chief’s position.

In the context of local government in Massachusetts, the terms “weak” and “strong” police chief refer to the differing levels of authority and independence granted to the head of a police department. For example, a strong police chief typically has greater autonomy and authority over the police department, including making decisions about personnel, policies, and day-to-day operations with minimal interference from other town officials, whereas a weak chief may have to work more closely under the direction of town officials. With respect to policy, a strong chief has more leeway to implement and enforce policies and initiatives within the department. They can often enact changes or new programs with less external approval, while a weak chief might have to get more consensus or approval from town officials before implementing new policies or significant changes within the department.

When the town charter was adopted at the 2006 annual town meeting, then-chief of police Tom Irvin became a strong chief. 

But Section 7-6 of the charter mandated a review every 10 years, and thus a Charter Review Commission was established in 2016, chaired by Pam Waxlax. The commission put forth a revised town charter in 2017, with a notable change to the language governing police and fire chiefs. 

Section 3-1(d) of the revised (and present) town charter now reads:

The Police Chief and Fire Chief shall be appointed and removed in accordance with the provisions of, and shall have all the powers and duties specified in M.G.L. c.41, §97 and M.G.L. c.48. §42, respectively.

Any references to “strong” and “weak” chief were removed, and it is the reference to Section 97 that the Select Board will ask May Town Meeting voters to change. Although the Select Board is couching this as a “correction” (implying there was a clerical error), there is a significant difference between Section 97 and Section 97A in the General Laws.

Section 97 reads in part:

There shall be a police department established under the direction of the selectmen, who shall appoint a chief of police and such other police officers as they deem necessary. The selectmen may make suitable regulations governing the police department and the officers thereof.

Section 97A reads in part:

There shall be a police department established by the selectmen, and such department shall be under the supervision of an officer to be known as the chief of police. The selectmen of any such town shall appoint a chief of police and such other officers as they deem necessary. The chief of police in any such town shall from time to time make suitable regulations governing the police department, and the officers thereof, subject to the approval of the selectmen; provided, that such regulations shall become effective without such approval upon the failure of the selectmen to take action thereon within thirty days after they have been submitted to them by the chief of police.

The primary difference is that under Section 97A, the chief of police has the power to make the policies and procedures that govern the department, not the Select Board. While the Select Board still has the authority to audit the policies, if they do not object in a timely matter, the policy is enacted. 

This proposed article aims to correct a scrivener’s error from the last Charter review process,” wrote Town Manager Norman Khumalo. “The Police Chief has always been a “strong chief” in Hopkinton. But in the last Charter review process, a scrivener’s error resulted in the Charter citing to section 97 (the “weak chief” statute) and not 97A (the “strong chief” statute) – i.e., the scrivener’s error was dropping the “A” at the end of the statutory reference.” Khumalo also pointed to Article 55 of the 2010 Annual Town Meeting, in which voters unanimously approved Section 97A, the strong chief statute.

Taking policy making power away from the elected Select Board and giving it to the chief of police is controversial for several reasons. Elected officials are directly accountable to the public through the electoral process. This means they are more likely to reflect the community’s values and priorities in policy-making, including policing policies. Police chiefs, while experts in law enforcement, are not elected and thus do not have the same level of direct accountability to the public.

Separating the power to set policies from the power to enforce them is a fundamental principle of good governance. It ensures a system of checks and balances where law enforcement agencies operate under the policies set by a representative governing body, reducing the risk of abuse of power.

Further, when elected representatives set policing policies, there is typically more transparency in the decision-making process. Public meetings, debates, and voting on policies allow for community engagement and oversight, fostering public trust in the policing system.

It is not known if the Charter Review Commission took those considerations into account when drafting the revised charter, but what is certain is that there was no debate about it. A review of the 2017 Town Report shows that when the motion to adopt the revised charter was introduced there were several amendments proposed. Some passed and others failed, but there was no mention of the role of the police chief. 

But in fact, at the moment the revised charter was adopted by 2017 town meeting voters, then-chief of police Ed Lee became a weak chief by law, as is his successor, Joseph Bennett. Khumalo did not offer specifics as to why the “scriveners error” went unnoticed for so many years.

Sunnyside Gardens

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Under the leadership of a good police chief, I think that giving him or her the authority to manage his department and policies accordingly makes sense. Assuming we have a good chief, the select board should not need to be involved in the management of that department, as the members do not have the education/training/experience to control what proper policing is in the town. What the board should be concerned with is having the right personnel at the top of each department to do the best job possible for the people of Hopkinton. Im ok with 97A

  2. I can only deduct that within the context of recent events surrounding the former deputy chief that this is just another CYA move by the Select Board and Police Chief. Their timing couldn’t be any worse. It just raises even more questions about the Chief and Select Board. It will be interesting to see how the Town residents respond to another reactionary power grab by the Police Chief because of his embarrassing performance at Sgt. Brennan’s Loudermill hearing. The first rule when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. The Select Board and Police Chief should put away their shovels.

  3. I’m all for defunding and reallocating money from paramilitary police forces to social safety nets, but I don’t think this is the most pressing issue for Hopkinton. I, personally, would welcome a thorough reform of the police in Hopkinton to mirror a more community focused system. I think that would make Hopkinton a safer and more inclusive community to remove armed police and replace it with community responses.

    However, is this really where Hopkinton _actually_ wants to be spending all it’s time and energy?

  4. A.S. How would disarming the police make our community more inclusive? Not sure you realize we live in a world where evil exists at every corner. The rainbow and unicorns aren’t able to protect us and never will. You can dye your hair purple, pink, green or orange, it doesn’t matter. The perfect world that we all dream of unfortunately will never exist. The police need to be armed and provided equipment that is bigger, faster and more technologically advanced than our predators. Let me know how “ Community Response “ will work as your family is being held hostage at gun point by a deranged madman or woman. These people walk with us in every community within our commonwealth. Most people never know who they are until they become a victim.

    • I don’t think that is the discussion we are having.

      You are asking for reform and I don’t think that enhancing the police department in Hopkinton should be high on the agenda.

      I don’t think we should be spending our time on this. Porter, Brennan and Bennett have made things complicated. I don’t think looking for conspiracy is actually useful.

      But hey, let’s totally reform everything. I’m sure the current Select Board can find a better way to help ensure safety in our community to satisfy your need for reform.

  5. So this is the board and chief’s next attempt to terminate Brennan. No sb involvement- they wash their hands of this and Bennett gets to continue his power play with no checks to contain his bullying behavior. A win-win for them it seems. How is this guy still the chief?

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