The Methuen police department gave preference to job candidates who said they wouldn’t arrest relatives or fellow officers for drunken driving, the Massachusetts Civil Service Commission found.
A Civil Service Commission official wrote that he was dismayed to learn that the city gave higher points to applicants who said they wouldn’t arrest a family member or an officer they knew, while docking points from who said they would.
“The City turned the interview process upside down,” wrote Christopher C. Bowman, chairman of the Civil Service Commission, in the July 9 decision. “There is simply no valid basis to award the highest points to candidates who express a willingness to apply one set of rules to strangers and another set of rules to friends and family members.”
Methuen Mayor Stephen N. Zanni said he plans to review the police hiring process and procedures over the next two months before commenting on the findings. But he said he believes police should arrest anyone caught drunken driving, regardless of their connections.
“Everyone should be treated equally — no question,” Zanni said. He said other candidates have also challenged the hiring process and the city is still awaiting those rulings.
As part of the hiring process, Methuen asked candidates how they would handle a situation in which where they found a driver in a crash who appeared to be intoxicated.
They were then asked how they would handle the same scenario involving a relative or a police officer they knew from a neighboring town.
At a commission hearing, Methuen police officers said the questions were intended to help them assess the honesty and reasoning of applicants.
“I’m looking for some bearing, some honesty, and how quickly the person can think on their feet,” Police Lieutenant Michael Pappalardo testified.
But Pappalardo also said he wouldn’t believe anyone who claimed they would arrest their family and friends. And when candidates said they wouldn’t arrest family or fellow officers, the hiring panel noted the person “knows discretion.”
“Some of the interview panelists actually heaped high praise on those candidates who stated that they would arrest a stranger but not arrest a friend or family member based on the same facts, citing their understanding of ‘discretion,’” Bowman wrote in his decision.
The case arose after Michael Phillips, 26, an auxiliary officer for the city of Lawrence who also works for an armored car company, appealed the city’s decision to bypass him for a job as a reserve police officer.
The city sent a letter to Phillips, saying he showed a “lack of discretion” by saying he would arrest his mother and father if he caught them driving drunk, according to the commission decision.
“This answer appears insincere and sounds like Mr. Phillips is trying to respond in the way he thinks the panel wants him to respond,” the letter stated.
Phillips also questioned whether the hiring process was impartial, because five candidates had family members who work for the city or had in the past, including two who are friends with the police chief.
The commission ordered the city to keep Phillips on the list of candidates for similar positions in the future.
The ruling was first reported by the Eagle-Tribune newspaper.
Some other Massachusetts police departments have come under fire in recent years for giving special treatment to fellow officers caught drunken driving, a controversial practice known as “professional courtesy.”
In a story last year, the Globe noted several cases where police chose not to arrest fellow officers who appeared to be drunk.
And a Civil Service Commission decision in 2008 questioned whether it was fair to punish a Pittsfield officer for failing to report a traffic stop involving a fellow officer, because “professional courtesy” is so common.
“Every police officer who testified before the commission testified that the routine and customary practice when a stop is made on a fellow police officer, is to show professional courtesy and not call in the stop,” the report said.