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January 24. 2014 10:48PM

Weare police overtime mushrooms; shifts covered during shooting probe not specified

The Weare police department spent $221,325 on overtime last year — more than double their overtime budget — but officials won't specify how much, if any, was used to cover shifts for two officers who were on paid administrative leave while the state investigates their involvement in the Aug. 14 fatal shooting of a suspected heroin dealer.

The two officers remained on leave for about three months until newly-sworn police Chief John Velleca brought them back to handle administrative duties in November, saying he could not justify paying their salaries to keep them home while the short-staffed department was "hemorrhaging overtime."

And, the chief added, the two officers can be sent out on emergency calls if no other officer is available. They also wear their uniforms, badges and carry their service weapons at work even though the New Hampshire State Police investigators and homicide prosecutors have not completed their criminal probe of whether their use of deadly force during the undercover drug operation was justified.

"At this point, there is no reason to relieve them of either," Velleca said.

The state Attorney General's office has ordered the names of the two officers not be publicly released until the criminal investigation is complete and its findings released. The lead prosecutor could not say when they expect the report to be done.

The two officers fired and fatally wounded Alex Cora DeJesus, 35, of Manchester at about 10:10 a.m. outside Dunkin' Donuts at Lanctot's Plaza on Route 114 during an undercover operations that involved confidential informants. Prosecutors won't say if DeJesus was armed or threatened the officers.

Velleca, who took over as chief Nov. 1, said he first met with members of the state Attorney General's office to ask if he could bring the two officers back to work.

"I'm in charge of the safety of this town and I'm hemorrhaging overtime at that point. I have to make a decision. I need to find a very, very good reason why I would leave these people at home and getting paid. And that's when I talked to the state Attorney General's office," Velleca explained.

"I was not prohibited or mandated from bringing them back in any capacity that I saw fit," Velleca continued.

"They (officers) are primarily (assigned to) administrative duties within the police department, but...they would be available to respond to an emergency situation if need be, if there were not other officers here," Velleca said this week. He said he didn't know if they were sent on any emergency calls yet.

"Their supervisors would know the exact situations they would be sent out on, but I don't know if that has happened," he added.

The state Attorney General's office has long maintained it is standard practice for an officer involved in a shooting to be placed on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

But Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan G. Morrell on Friday said "we don't advise them as to whether they should be on administrative leave or not. We don't take a position on it. That's a personnel matter." Morrell is the lead prosecutor on the Weare case.

Velleca said he does not know if the department paid overtime to cover the two officers' shifts during the three months they were out on leave. Velleca said he doesn't know if their shifts were filled or left vacant, noting he was not on the force at the time.

Selectman Chairman Thomas S. Clow wouldn't specify if the force paid overtime to cover the two officers' shifts. He acknowledged, however, that "if you have a space to fill and you want to provide the same 24-hour coverage, it usually results in overtime."

One of the officers earns $852 a week; the other $1,081, according to the finance office.

Velleca said the officers handle work that he otherwise would have to pay someone else — such as another officer, records clerk or administrative assistant — to do.

The police department's overtime budget in 2013 was $100,000, but it actually spent $221,325, according to the town's finance office. The department's total 2013 budget was approved at $1,448,025, but it actually spent $1,506,137, the finance office said.

Velleca and Clow said these expenses largely resulted from having to cover vacancies during a year of high turnover. Gregory Begin retired as chief in June, one sergeant retired, another was fired, and one officer voluntarily left.

Clow also noted the department has long overspent its overtime budget.

"We struggled with that for a long time," Clow said. He said Velleca's proposed 2014 budget includes $100,000 for overtime and "the chief made a commitment to live within that."

Four new full-time officers recently were hired, bringing the force back to 11. Three currently are in training at the police academy and will be ready to assume patrol duties in April. The fourth will enter the academy after her field training.

kmarchoki@unionleader.com


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