A Somerville police detective used poor judgment in 2015 when he texted a street source the address of a 17-year-old who had stolen marijuana from him, but he was not to blame when the man and an accomplice attacked the teenager the next day with machetes, an arbitrator has ruled.
The city lacked just cause to fire Dante DiFronzo three years ago, according to the arbitrator, who ordered him reinstated as a detective after he completes training on handling informants and street sources. Yet the arbitrator also found that DiFronzo, 47, deserved a lengthy suspension and is not entitled to back pay or benefits.
Mayor Joseph Curtatone of Somerville denounced the June 4 ruling as “absolutely disgusting” and said he will appeal the case to a Superior Court judge. He questioned the arbitrator’s objectivity and said the decision to overturn the officer’s termination highlights the need to reform how police discipline cases are handled. Arbitration is the appeals process used by most law enforcement agencies, based on collective bargaining contracts.
“The system is rigged, and it does not tip in favor of human rights or civil rights,” Curtatone said. “Employers must be able to take action against the small percentage of officers who are bad actors and not be second-guessed by an arbitrator.”
But DiFronzo’s lawyer, Timothy M. Burke, said the arbitrator was picked by city officials and DiFronzo based upon his neutrality and conducted an independent review, including 15 days of testimony.
“The mayor of the city is free to appeal and they will lose,” said Burke, calling Curtatone’s objections to the decision “sour grapes and without merit.”
In his 77-page decision, Harvey M. Shrage, who has worked as an arbitrator for 32 years and is a Western New England University professor, found that DiFronzo seemed so focused on finding a teenager suspected of breaking into a vacant apartment in February 2015 that his judgment was “clouded” when he traded information with a street source, Jonathan Machado.
Shrage said it wasn’t improper for DiFronzo to reach out to Machado, who had a criminal record, for help finding the suspect, Henry Alvarez. But DiFronzo should have “reevaluated” the situation once Machado told him that he was also looking for the teenager and planned to give him a “beating” because he had stolen a backpack of marijuana from him.
“Do what you got to do,” DiFronzo texted Machado on March 1, 2015. He provided an address on Alston Street in Somerville where he believed Alvarez was hiding and urged him to get a photograph of him for police if he found him.
The next day, Machado and an unidentified accomplice forced their way into the home where the teenager was hiding, wielding machetes, according to a police report. While Machado held a knife to the head of one occupant, his accomplice allegedly stabbed Alvarez repeatedly. A man who was hiding in another room with his 1-year-old daughter called 911. Alvarez underwent surgery and survived.
DiFronzo told police he “had a hunch” that Machado was involved in the attack and arrested him three weeks later. But he did not tell supervisors about the texts, according to the arbitrator. Eighteen months later, prosecutors alerted Somerville police that investigators had discovered the concerning messages during a search of Machado’s phone.
Last year, Machado, 26, was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty to home invasion, armed robbery, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
During the arbitration hearing, DiFronzo testified that he warned Machado several times not to harm Alvarez, and he had assured him that he wouldn’t. He said he didn’t share his texts with investigators because he thought they were irrelevant, according to the ruling.
The Somerville police union argued that DiFronzo was not responsible for the stabbing and cited evidence that Machado had spotted the victim on the street and chased him to the house where he was stabbed.
The arbitrator said DiFronzo “used poor judgment, justifying discipline in his handling of the case” but determined there was insufficient evidence to support the city’s claim that the stabbing was a direct result of the information that DiFronzo gave Machado. The arbitrator also rejected the city’s claim that DiFronzo tried to conceal his alleged wrongdoing by failing to disclose the texts.
“In reaching this conclusion, I have carefully considered the lack of clear guidance provided to officers in the manner that they interact with street sources,” Shrage wrote. He said DiFronzo’s conduct wasn’t motivated by personal interest or benefit.
Shrage said the former police chief who disciplined DiFronzo apparently gave “significant weight” to a 2017 letter from prosecutors, who warned that if DiFronzo were called to testify in a criminal case, they would be obligated to disclose his misconduct involving Machado. Shrage said he didn’t believe that status disqualified him from fulfilling his police duties, noting that the union said 10 Somerville police officers are currently working “without issue” after being named in similar warnings, known as Brady letters.
Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan referred the case to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office, which declined to charge DiFronzo.
Burke said DiFronzo was named police officer of the year twice and came under scrutiny when he publicly criticized the mayor’s oversight of the Police Department.
“This was a biased investigation and anyone familiar with the promotional system within the city of Somerville is aware that numerous officers, including relatives and supporters of the mayor’s, have been given questionable promotions with significant disciplinary backgrounds,” Burke said. “And Dante was very outspoken about that.”
But Curtatone said the city has invested millions in the Police Department during his tenure to make it a model of 21st century policing, and reinstating DiFronzo would undermine public trust.
“He directly assisted in a violent act that almost resulted in someone’s death,” Curtatone said. “We’re lucky that person is still alive.”