NEWTOWN BOROUGH >> After spending a better part of a month investigating allegations against the borough’s police department, Police Chief James Sabath delivered his findings to council at its April 10 council meeting.
Earlier this year, council tasked the newly-hired chief with looking into “perceptions of the police department and some things that needed addressing” including the use of personal body armor by department officers, a delay in the prosecution and initial response to a 2013 incident in which shots were fired at a home on Edgeboro Drive and instances in which an officer felt she was harassed by a fellow police officer.
Many of the allegations were brought forward during public meetings in December 2017 and January 2018 by resident Joe Lovi who expressed dissatisfaction with the department for its handling of the Edgeboro Drive incident, voiced criticism of one officer for not wearing body armor and raised concern over incidents of harassment.
On the issue of body armor, the chief said when he learned that not all of his officers performing patrol functions were wearing the armor, “the situation was rectified.
“I am a staunch supporter of officers wearing body armor. I personally would likely not have survived an incident in my career if it had not been for wearing my body armor,” he said
In his report, he included the Pennsylvania Accreditation Standard Policy regarding soft body armor for council’s review and consideration.
Regarding the Edgeboro Drive incident, which is scheduled to go to trial on May 7, Sabath said he would “ensure in the future that responding officers will be wearing the proper protective equipment” when they respond to an active scene.
Sabath said one of the officers was putting on the body armor as the scene was progressing.
“The scene was still an active scene. Nobody should have been responding without having body armor,” said Sabath.
The chief then spoke about the handling of the case, speaking first to the delay between the event and the filing of charges against the defendant.
The event happened in 2013. Charges were filed in November 2017 against Bryan Maher of Yardley for aggravated assault, discharge of a firearm in an occupied house, recklessly endangering another person, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct.
“For a portion of the time, the defendant was unavailable for prosecution, but the case could have been brought forth somewhat sooner,” said the chief.
“A greater concern was the communication between the department and the victim, which could have been better throughout the process,” the chief reported. “In this particular case, in my opinion the victim could have been given information well in advance of when she received it that would have put her mind more at ease as to the circumstances of the case.
“It will be my responsibility in the future to monitor the case progress of major incidents more thoroughly and maintain an open dialogue with crime victims as permissible by law.”
Regarding the collection and processing of evidence in the case, the chief said he could not go into specifics since the court case is pending.
The chief also spoke to the filing of Right to Know requests by Lovi regarding the incident back in November which were denied by the borough but subsequently provided to Lovi by the District Attorney’s office.
“I concur with the D.A.’s office on the release of the information provided and would have done the same at the initial step,” said the chief. “I recommend that I work closely with the Open Records Officer when requests pertaining to police records are submitted. I wish to be transparent as permissible by law with the public we serve.”
The chief said “part of the perception is the citizens never got to know anything about what the police department was doing. I’m hearing that a lot,” said Sabath. “They’re starting to see us out there more. They are starting to hear more about what’s going on. We have to have more of a sense of transparency to the extent the law allows.”
In his report, the chief said he also spoke with two of the three former female employees of the department regarding the harassment allegations. One woman, he said, reported no negative interactions with her fellow employees. The other woman related a number of inappropriate remarks made to her by one officer in particular. “This issue was brought to the attention of the chief who took remedial action.”
The chief said the particulars of the incident are not subject to public disclosure since it did not result in demotion or discharge of an employee.
With that said, the chief said he’d like to see the department’s harassment policy updated. He provided council with copies of policy in affect at his former departments which cover “a wider spread of affected people.”
The chief said he would also seek training opportunities for the department’s officers or develop an in-service session utilizing his background as a Bucks County Community College instructor and a graduate of the Municipal Police Officers Instructor Development course.
“I cannot stress enough that these are initial steps of a process I plan on continuing throughout my tenure to provide professions police services to the borough,” said Sabath.
During public comment, Lovi thanked the chief for making his officers wear their protective vests, but said the report doesn’t go far enough,
He called the incident on Edgeboro Drive “a sloppy investigation” by the department “and gross negligence from an investigative standpoint. Four years went by and we could have arrested this man in three months,” said Lovi.
He also criticized retiring Chief Tony Wojciechowski for showing up at the Edgeboro Drive incident without his vest and without his gun.
Responding to his comments, Council President Kevin McDermott said, “I hope what you heard from the chief helped,” to which Lovi said it had not.
“I have a bunch of allegations. I just want answers. I want to hear this. ‘Yes. The chief didn’t have his gun or his vest. Yes. Everyone of the gross allegations I made were not just hypothetical - they’re all true.’ And I only scratched the surface.”
“No one here is saying everything in the past was done properly. I think we’re interested in the future,” said McDermott:
Council members asked questions of the chief, but took no action regarding the report.
After the meeting, McDermott said he’s personally satisfied by the report, the steps the chief is taking with the department and said he is ready to move forward.