Hull in shock after cop accuses brass of harassment
HULL - A police officer’s allegations that Hull’s police chief and his top two brass sexually harassed her for years have local residents reeling.
“It seemed to come out of the blue,’’ said Vinnie Harte, a Hull resident and head of the town’s nonprofit Wellspring Multi-Service Center. “I don’t think people know what to make of it. A lot of people have strong personal relationships with everyone involved. I think people are waiting to see what happens and where the truth lies.’’
Stephen Licare, manager of A Street Liquors, said everyone coming into his shop was talking about the case. “There’s a big buzz about it, and there will be for a while,’’ he said.
Officer Wendy Cope-Allen filed suit in Plymouth Superior Court two weeks ago against the town, Chief Richard Billings, Captain Robert Sawtelle, and Lieutenant Dale Shea. The hefty document alleges continuous harassment ranging from crude name-calling and accusations that she’d slept her way into the job, to unfair work assignments.
The town has hired an outside defense attorney and issued a statement saying that it is investigating Cope-Allen’s allegations. None of the officers named in the lawsuit, the town manager, nor selectmen would comment on the matter.
“The allegations are false,’’ said John J. Davis, a lawyer who is representing the officers and the town. While he would not comment on specifics of the suit, he said the Hull Police Department “is not a hostile environment, she was not treated differently because of her gender, and we expect to prevail at trial.’’
Cope-Allen’s lawsuit, which seeks $640,000 in damages and attorney fees, plus whatever punitive damages a judge might award, includes affidavits from two women who had worked with her - one as a dispatcher and the other as an animal control officer - and who said they both witnessed the treatment she received and experienced similar harassment themselves.
The allegation that seemed to shock Hull residents the most was that Billings refused to give Cope-Allen extra time off to grieve after her teenage son died in a freak hockey accident in 2006 - even though other officers offered to work extra shifts in her place.
“I think that was disgraceful,’’ said Donald Brooker, who was the town’s chief of police when selectmen hired Cope-Allen in 2003 and retired later that year after more than 20 years in the top job.
Billings replaced Brooker in 2004 - after a long and controversial process that involved justifying the selectmen’s 3-2 vote to the state since the board bypassed Captain Donald DiMarzio, who had both seniority and a higher score on the civil service exam.
DiMarzio retired shortly afterward and now does insurance work. Reached last week and asked to comment on Cope-Allen’s lawsuit, he said, “I know all the people involved and, no, I’m not surprised. That’s all I want to say about it.’’
Brooker said Cope-Allen and her father - a retired Weymouth police lieutenant - met with him and his wife, Ruth, about two years ago. “She told me some things and said she was thinking about hiring an attorney,’’ Brooker said.
He said he heard from her again about a month ago, but added he couldn’t discuss his “knowledge or lack of knowledge’’ about the allegations because he expected to be called as a witness in any upcoming trial.
“I’m retired, I keep out of the operations of the Police Department,’’ he said. “Yes, [the allegations do] make me sad. When I left the department, we had one of the best police departments on the South Shore, if not the best.’’
In its statement, issued by Town Manager Philip E. Lemnios, the town said it “takes allegations of harassment and discrimination very seriously and has a strict anti-discrimination policy applicable to all municipal departments and employees.
“As this is a personnel matter, and in litigation, the town can make no further public comment or statement at this time,’’ the statement said. “In the meantime, the Hull Police Department will continue to serve and protect the community and residents of Hull.’’
Cope-Allen continues to work as a Hull officer, and her lawyer, James P. Brady of Hingham, said she received more than 40 e-mails recently from “people supportive of the suit, including current and former police employees, and not a single hostile e-mail so far.’’
Brady said that “her superiors [in the department] essentially are avoiding her, and things are very quiet.’’
Cope-Allen joined the department in 1996 as a matron working with female prisoners, and then became a dispatcher before being sworn in as a police officer. Her sister is a dispatcher for the department, but it was a fellow dispatcher who has since left who filed the affidavit supporting her allegation of harassment by her superiors.
Cope-Allen was the town’s DARE officer - providing drug and alcohol abuse education to students - serving as president of the state DARE organization for several years, and was certified in domestic violence and sexual assault cases, Brady said.
He said she “reached the tipping point’’ and decided to sue after the town dropped the DARE program, she was removed from domestic violence and sexual assault work, and it became clear that the chief would not support her efforts to transfer to another police force.
“It just got to be too much,’’ Brady said. “I have never encountered a police department so pervasively poisoned by misogyny, so routinely demeaning and degrading to women.
“I can’t imagine that the town was not aware of this,’’ he added. “It’s a small department [of 24 sworn and 15 non-sworn employees] and in the same building as Town Hall.’’
Hull residents are watching closely.
“Everybody’s talking about it,’’ said Tom Walsh, a Hull resident since 1972, as he ate lunch with friends on Pemberton Pier. “Nobody knows what’s going on.’’
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.