Embattled Conn. Chief Placed on Leave

Feb. 5, 2011
Bristol Police Chief John DiVenere was relieved of duty Thursday after the latest devastating revelation about his department.

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Police Chief John DiVenere was relieved of duty Thursday after the latest devastating revelation about his department.

Mayor Art Ward summoned the 33-year police veteran to a meeting with city lawyers at 10 a.m., placed him on paid administrative leave, then ordered him to turn in his gun, badge and the keys to his city car.

Ward named Capt. Eric Osanitsch, a widely respected commander, as acting chief.

Ward's actions against DiVenere came three days after an internal report revealed new details about the case of Officer Marc Blazejowski, who has a history of erratic and violent behavior that culminated in a felony battery arrest at Disney World last year.

Despite that arrest, and another period in 2006 when Blazejowski was scrutinized for bizarre behavior that several officers thought was threatening, he was allowed to keep his patrol job and continue carrying his service weapon.

The new report said that other officers were afraid that Blazejowski might have been maintaining a "hit list" of enemies at the time of an emotional breakdown five years ago, but DiVenere kept him on the job, anyway.

DiVenere's attorney characterized the chief's removal as a political smokescreen, and said the chief will ultimately return from his paid administrative leave to run the 125-member force.

"The mayor wants to pretend that he was not in the loop with regard to those incidents. He's taking political heat and he wants to deflect that onto the chief," said the attorney, Leon Rosenblatt. "The fact is that the mayor was always in the loop. He was consulted on every issue that's come up. Every decision that is being questioned now was approved by him."

Lori Coppinger, a city-paid consultant, issued a searing conclusion about why Blazejowski was allowed to keep his badge despite getting arrested at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge on charges that he choked his pregnant fiancee last spring.

DiVenere, Ward and Personnel Director Diane Ferguson all signed a "last chance" agreement with Blazejowski after the Disney incident, but each one gave conflicting accounts of who knew the details about Blazejowski's 2006 behavior.

They also offered different stories about who was to blame for keeping him on the payroll after the Disney arrest and after his 2006 crisis, which police said included a drunken suicide attempt, belligerent confrontations with civilians, near-fights with firefighters, a comment to another officer that "I'd like to kill someone just to see how it feels," and a menacing remark about a dispatcher.

Coppinger's investigation, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by The Courant, revealed extensive finger-pointing.

"The chief says he did not want to keep Blazejowski but deferred to the mayor and the personnel director.

"The personnel director said she did not want to keep Officer Blazejowski, but felt that the cost to the city was too high to try and fight it in the labor board.

"The mayor said he wanted to terminate Officer Blazejowski but deferred to the expertise of the personnel director and the chief," Coppinger reported.

"It appears that nobody wanted to keep Officer Blazejowski as a police officer... including many of the officers he works with."

Coppinger concluded that Blazejowski should have been fired, and warned that the deal to let him stay leaves the city vulnerable to litigation.

"It would have been the smarter move to start termination proceedings against him regardless of the cost of a labor board hearing because in the end, it may cost the city much more financially depending (on) what exactly that 'last chance' of misconduct Officer Blazejowski does," she wrote.

Blazejowski is currently on workers' compensation leave for a back injury, but under the deal, he can return to street patrol once he's found "fit for duty."

The Blazejowski case is just one in a series of scandals that have crippled public confidence in the department and derailed DiVenere's 13-year tenure as chief.

In just the past year alone, a former officer, Robert Mosback, was charged with driving while intoxicated in connection with an accident in which he crashed his cruiser into a utility pole while on duty.

Also, a former evidence officer was disciplined for accumulating a personal collection of handguns at police headquarters "by less than honest and professional means," according to another internal investigation report. Sgt. Rodney Gotowala served a three-week suspension in that case.

Barely two weeks ago, Det. Lt. Thomas Killiany hurriedly retired just as an investigation was beginning into why he wouldn't cooperate with the investigation into Mosback's crash. Killiany was DiVenere's fourth in command and among his closest allies, and some officers have privately questioned whether his departure was a signal that DiVenere would soon be gone, too.

Ward had a series of contentious meetings with DiVenere this week before ordering him out. DiVenere will still receive his $125,000-a-year salary, Ward said in an e-mail Thursday.

"Effective immediately, I have placed Police Chief John DiVenere on paid administrative leave pending further review of the internal investigations requested by my office," Ward wrote. "Because these matters are of a sensitive nature, I am not at liberty to offer any more detail at this time."

Council member Ken Cockayne, who called for DiVenere's resignation two months ago, applauded Ward's decision.

"This report just goes to show the lack of leadership in the department. As you read through it, everything that happened was everyone's fault -- except for the guy in charge," Cockayne said. "We have a great police department. It's unfortunate that the actions of a few have tainted it."

Among the key points of Coppinger's report:

-- In 2006, Lt. Thomas Grimaldi warned DiVenere in writing that several officers feared that Blazejowski was compiling an enemies list at the department -- but there's no indication that the chief took action.

At least four patrol officers told Grimaldi that they were worried because Blazejowski was angry at them for giving statements against him in an internal investigation. Two wondered whether it was a "hit list," and Grimaldi said that he, too, was concerned.

"I have strong feelings of uneasiness concerning Blazejowski returning to work. Blazejowski's past history has shown us that his threats have become more serious as time goes on," Grimaldi wrote.

-- Crucial documents about Blazejowski's 2006 suicide attempt were mysteriously missing from his personnel folder.

A patrol officer and sergeant went to Blazejowski's house when a former girlfriend reported that he was suicidal and had locked himself in the bathroom with his gun. Blazejowski was drunk when they arrived, and they had to search for his gun because he repeatedly refused to tell them where it was. He was taken to a hospital for a psychiatric evaluation afterward, the report says.

The officer and sergeant wrote detailed memos to Capt. Dan McIntyre about what had happened, but those documents apparently vanished. If the officer and sergeant hadn't kept their own copies, "no paper trail would exist on this call," Coppinger wrote.

Officer M.J. Warner said in a statement that she believes McIntyre did not do enough about the incident, and that he later punished her for providing a copy of the lost memo to an investigator.

"This is not the first time that Capt. McIntyre has not addressed [employee assistance program] concerns," Warner said.

-- As a supervisor, Gotowala gave Blazejowski high marks on his annual job reviews from 2007 to 2010, but apparently was just copying the same report, word for word, each year.

"The last four of Blazejowski's performance evaluations ... appear to be identical copies. It would appear that Sgt. Gotowala did not take the time to provide individualized constructive feedback. This ... shows a lack of credence in the evaluations done by this supervisor," Coppinger wrote.

-- From his first weeks on the job, Blazejowski raised concerns among his field training officers and later among his supervisors. But the department either overlooked his behavior or gave only minimal punishment.

Lt. Richard Brown reported that officers were reluctant to work with Blazejowski after his 2006 troubles, and were "flabbergasted" that he was allowed back to work. But Brown didn't tell DiVenere because he expected to be ignored.

"I learned a long time ago that once the chief makes a decision, my opinion doesn't matter," Brown said.

Osanitsch told Coppinger that he wanted to fire Blazejowski after the Florida arrest, and couldn't understand why DiVenere didn't do so. Osanitsch said the whole department has suffered because of the actions of a few officers and its leadership.

"Ultimately it is the decision-making at the top. It always seems to be the same handful of people that have problems because those problems are not dealt with," Osanitsch said. "It just comes down to the decision-making. It's like Blazejowski. How do you justify the decision to keep this officer? I don't think you can."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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