SALEM — Lawsuits against the beleaguered Salem Police Department have cost the town’s insurer $279,806 since 2012, the Union Leader has learned.
There have been 16 claims over that time period, alleging excessive force, false arrest and other civil rights violations, according to court records and documents supplied in response to a Right -to-Know request. Of the $279,806 the town’s insurer paid out, $186,000 went to settling eight claims. Approximately $30,000 in rewards are still pending.
Attorney Larry Vogelman, who shepherded some of the lawsuits, said Salem police are well-known as a problem department.
Since Vogelman left the state public defender’s office to enter private practice in 1997, he said he’s probably done more police misconduct lawsuits than any other lawyer in New Hampshire.
“I’ve received more complaints about Salem than complaints about all the others combined,” Vogelman said.
He estimates he’s sued the town of Salem or its officers at least 25 times for police misconduct, and he thinks he’s received twice as many complaints about the department.
Many of the cases against the 65-member department have been settled.
Vogelman files the suits in federal court because he says it’s “almost impossible” to sue a police officer in state court, given statutes that insulate them from litigation.
While he has not filed any new suits after the Nov. 23 release of a 177-page redacted audit of the Salem police, he thinks the contents of that report will serve to support other police misconduct suits against the town.
“The report really is a blueprint for a lawsuit against the town of Salem for having a totally … bankrupt internal affairs policy, which would lead to a constitutional violation,” Vogelman said.
Among the allegations in the lawsuits:
• In a case Salem settled in 2016, plaintiff Thomas Templeton accused Officer Joseph Freda of hitting him with a flashlight while he was restrained. Freda later pleaded guilty to a criminal charge as a result of the incident.
• In a suit filed earlier this year, plaintiff David Konze accuses several officers of throwing him to the ground during an arrest, searching his cellphone without a warrant and refusing to return the phone to him upon his release.
• Other cases involve allegations that police officers conspired with a private investigator to falsely arrest someone the investigator was gathering information about and that they searched a home without a warrant and then failed to read the owner his Miranda rights before arresting him.
The report by Kroll Inc. found that the internal affairs program often failed to thoroughly investigate Salem police officers, citizen complaints were often ignored or discouraged, records were incomplete and the culture inside the department disregarded town oversight.
The state Attorney General’s office and the Rockingham County prosecutor’s office both said last week they are reviewing the audit.
Vogelman currently has one lawsuit against Salem police pending. In it, plaintiff Christian Bright alleges officers brought false charges against him in 2015. He was found not guilty by a jury in Rockingham County Superior Court.
The suit against two Salem officers also claims the town of Salem is liable because its policies, practices and customs were a “direct and proximate cause” of the police misconduct alleged in the suit.
In an addendum to the Kroll report on the culture in the Salem Police Department, the auditors included observations that pointed to discriminatory discipline, which saw harsher punishments for some officers and more lenient outcomes for officers who were viewed as aligned with management.
“The chief and some of his cronies didn’t have any realistic internal affairs procedures and did whatever the hell they wanted,” Vogelman said. “As long as you’re friendly with the chief and the deputy chief, you can get away with anything.”
Eli Silverman, a professor emeritus at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who specializes in police misconduct cases, said that in most departments a small number of officers are responsible for the majority of the civil rights violations and subsequent lawsuits.
The high number of lawsuits in Salem could be symptomatic of the favoritism and lack of internal oversight, he added.
Gilles Bissonnette with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire said some of the specific cases reviewed by Kroll show police getting off easy after committing crimes.
One case described in the report involved an off-duty police officer allegedly leaving the scene of a car crash after consuming alcohol. He received a five-day suspension. Another case described an off-duty officer leading another officer in a high-speed pursuit, who later laughed it off “thinking the whole incident to be a joke.” That officer received a one-day suspension without pay.
“Based on the summaries in the report, crimes certainly may have been committed. I believe that an investigation should occur to assess whether charges would be appropriate,” Bissonnette said.
There was also a concern expressed in the Kroll report that Salem police view civilians with disdain. Vogelman pointed to a section of the report in which Chief Paul Donovan refers to a complainant disparagingly as a “soup sandwich” while discussing a case with Kroll investigator Daniel Linskey.
“That’s not how police are supposed to act,” Vogelman said.
Despite the report, the Salem Police Department has its defenders in town. A group of residents plans to rally outside the department at 7 p.m. Monday to show support.
Anthony Drago, one of the organizers, said he was once arrested by Salem police and they treated him respectfully and professionally. There may be some officers who aren’t angels, he said, but he believes the highly critical report is more indicative of adversarial town politics than it is any real problems within the department.
“To me, it sounds like two roosters trying to be in charge of the hen house,” Drago said. “We’re grown adults here. Shut up, sit down, fix the problem, and move on.”
On Nov. 24, in response to the release of the Kroll report, Salem Police Sgt. Michael Verrocchi posted “Wolves don’t lose sleep over the opinion of sheep” on his public Facebook account. Verrocchi is the union president for sworn personnel.
Town Manager Chrsitopher Dillon, who hired Kroll to perform the audit, said he was sorry to read the quote on Facebook.
“I met with police personnel last Tuesday and was hoping to improve our relationship. I think (the quote) is another example of the culture in the department and further demonstrates the accuracy of the report and that change is needed,” Dillon said.
Verrochi’s post served as ammunition in a recent court motion by lawyers defending youth hockey coach Robert Andersen of Wilmington, Mass., who was arrested and Tasered by Salem police in December 2017.
The court motion seeks to compel prosecutors to release the full, unredacted Kroll report, which defense attorney Michael Delaney views as exculpatory evidence.
Delaney also requested that a wide scope of documents and correspondences related to Salem police, Andersen’s criminal case, the Kroll audit and subsequent reviews be preserved. That includes statements made by police on social media.