A Low-Budget Police Force Runs Amok



Mass.--At the time, it seemed like a good idea.

In 1992, Spencer was short on cash; its full-time, 12-member police force seemed like a luxury. So the cutbacks began, and this year, all that remained were four full-timers, 12 part-timers and 11 volunteers.

“You get what you pay for,” says William R. Shemeth III, the current head of the town’s board of selectmen.

What they got, many residents say, was a low-budget force that too often harassed motorists as part of personal vendettas, pressured female drivers for dates, threatened innocent people with guns and stole from the town.

The townspeople say they were afraid to speak out at first, but complaints began piling up until finally the selectmen ordered nearly all of the force to turn in its guns. In May, they called in the state police to run the department.

Selectmen hired a Boston law firm to investigate; the result was a 540-page report that was forwarded to prosecutors. One officer, John Cote, has been indicted on counts of breaking and entering, assault, and sexual misconduct.


Town Police Chief Louis Martin was allowed to retire. His second in command resigned. The part-timers and volunteer auxiliary cops--some of whom were doing regular policing with little training and supervision, officials acknowledge--were laid off. Two full-time officers remain.

Lawyer Gary Brackett, who is representing 10 of the part-time officers, has said that they worked conscientiously and that they were treated unfairly, without a chance to respond to the allegations.

And there are those who say at least some officers were trying to do their jobs. Edward Thibault says he called police for break-ins at his country store and got results.

“I’d give them a ring 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. They were right here. They were damn professional. They even caught the man,” he says.

But many feel otherwise in this town of about 12,000 residents--many of them of French Canadian or Irish background who work at a plastics plant or commute to nearby Worcester and Boston.

Bruce Derosier, owner of a Spencer gym, said police had refused to arrest a drug dealer in his parking lot, complaining of the extra paperwork. He also said an officer once stopped one of his female employees on the road for no apparent reason and then tried to pressure her into a date.

“These guys that were cops in town were basically the little wimps in high school. Now they’re going to get even with the world,” Derosier said.

He said his complaints got him a little “going-away present” from a couple of soon-to-depart officers: a $150 speeding ticket.

“The whole department has humiliated this town,” said restaurateur Jennifer Gaucher. “We go to other towns; people laugh at us.”

When someone broke into her restaurant, Xavier’s, eight times within a year, police refused to stake it out or even expand patrols. In desperation, she bought a surveillance camera, caught the burglar on tape, and turned it over to the department.

That was the last she heard of the case. “None of them knew what they were doing,” she said. “They were a bunch of senseless and brainless yahoos.”

The arrival of the state police has steadied Spencer, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It makes for a tough situation for myself and them,” said Sgt. George Edwards, one of two local officers allowed to stay and work with state troopers. “But all in all, things have progressed to a higher standard.”

The department is now led by Sgt. Daniel Clark, a state trooper with a square jaw.

Clark said many of the department’s problems were minor enough to be handled with a reprimand or brief suspension, but that internal discipline was faulty. “If you don’t handle your problems internally, they become public,” he said.

After a spate of arrests by state police, some residents credited them with cleaning up a drug-infested neighborhood.

Selectmen hope to hire a new chief by July, but State Police Maj. Bradley Hibbard, the regional commander, said he will keep the Spencer operation in place as long as it’s needed.