Dover officials respond to allegations of low morale among police

Jim Ligouri

Jim Ligouri

DOVER — Two recent instances once again spotlighted potential unrest between city police officers and their chief, echoing similar claims by high ranking agency leadership in 2014.

Dover Police Department Master Cpl. Dave Gist, also Fraternal Order of Police lodge president, opted for an open disciplinary hearing against him on May 9, publicly airing concerns after a perceived snub of Chief Paul Bernat at a 2015 Christmas party, among other internal issues.

Attorney Jim Liguori, who represented Mr. Gist, followed with a letter to the Attorney General’s office on May 24 expressing his belief that “in my 41 years of practicing law in Kent County, I’ve never seen the morale or leadership of the Dover Police Department at such a low point.”

Asked for a response to the letter, Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen expressed support for all city police members.

“I have total confidence in the chief of police and staff, and all the men and women to do the very difficult job they have to do,” he said.

“I support them 100 percent and hope they’re 100 percent dedicated to addressing our citizens’ concerns.

“As far as Mr. Liguori’s letter goes, that’s just one man’s opinion,” the mayor said.

Dover City Council was briefed on the ongoing situation in which the Attorney General’s office said is under review.

“I believe, in my heart, that Dover city police officers are loyal to protecting the lives and property of the citizens in Dover and are responsive to Chief Bernat and the leadership of the police department,” councilman Scott Cole said after a request for comment.

After referencing a supposed no confidence vote against previous police chief Jim Hosfelt, Mr. Liguori claimed the “heavy handed and improper machinations of Paul Bernat in his
threatening [Internal Affairs] investigations against all those in the rank and file that agree with him …” need to be addressed.

Earlier this month when the letter was disclosed, Chief Bernat declined comment.

Two cases referenced

Mr. Liguori represented former Dover Police Cpl. Thomas W. Webster IV, found not guilty of assault in December 2015 after rendering a suspect

Dave Gist

Dave Gist

briefly unconscious after a jaw-breaking kick to the jaw in August 2014. The officer eventually separated from Dover Police Department while receiving $230,000 in a settlement agreement.

Cpl. Gist  was cleared of any misconduct by an independent police board regarding performance standards suggestions to officers on Jan. 13.

Mr. Liguori contacted the Attorney General’s office in reference to Chief Bernat’s handling of a use of force report involving Mr. Webster in the assault case, claiming a crime might have been committed.

Continuing on, Mr. Liguori described Chief Bernat as having surrounded himself with a “small coterie of sycophants.”

“It’s not my style to complain, quite the opposite, my affinity for all police, especially the [Dover Police Department], runs deep” Mr. Liguori wrote to the Attorney General’s office.

“That’s why I’ve struggled with how to handle the above. It bothers me so much that I can no longer just let it pass.”

Considering the source

Citing his past career in the media, councilman Fred Neil said, ““As an old newsman, I look to see what is prompting Jim Liguori’s new attacks on the Dover police chief.
“Since his client, officer Webster was acquitted, Liguori was able to get him a generous settlement.”

“However, Liguori may have missed the O.J. Trial, found innocent, but not in the public’s eye. Ditto, officer Webster’s actions were captured on video cam.”

Mr. Neil said, “After the city agreed to handsome increases for the police department, it may be Liguori is seeking to create doubt between the FOP leadership and the police chief. I can’t say it’s a power grab on behalf of the FOP, but it sure looks like it.”

In conclusion, Mr. Neil said he was in full support of all Dover Police Department staff, from patrol officers to Chief Bernat.

“I have no reason to believe Dover police officers aren’t loyal to protecting the lives of the citizens on Dover and responsive to Chief Bernat and the leadership of the police department,” he said.

“I stand solidly behind the chief and I wouldn’t want any entity other than elected officials controlling the destiny of the city.”

“Everyone has a right to their opinion,” Councilman David Anderson said. “I hope over the coming months that everyone has a positive one. We as a community appreciate the job done with distinction by our police officers.

“I encourage everyone to show it.”

More controversy

As FOP president, Cpl. Gist would not previously confirm or deny any no-confidence vote taken against Mr. Hosfelt, saying his organization does not discuss such matters publicly. Also, Cpl. Gist declined comment on Mr. Liguori’s letter.

Similar officer-based concerns about the leadership of then-Chief Jim Hosfelt were raised two years ago.

The transition to Chief Bernat upon Mr. Hosfelt’s retirement in 2014 prompted several high ranking officers to air public grievances describing an allegedly unhealthy work environment due to leadership practices within the department.

“The environment at [Dover Police Department] has been a hostile one and it’s been a stressful situation for myself and the other members of the staff for several months,” then Lt. Dan McKeown stated in a grievance connected to Chief Bernat’s promotion of Maj. Marvin Mailey, an African-American, to the agency’s second in charge, with the support of then-Mayor Carleton Carey.

To settle the grievances, the city of Dover paid Lts. McKeown, Jason Pires and J. Eric Richardson $50,000 each, along with Capt. Tim Stump; Capt. Robert Scott received $100,000.
Attempts to reach Mr. Hosfelt this week for comment were unsuccessful.

When announcing the settlements on May 12, 2014, the city of Dover cited officer’s allegations that Mayor Carey’s involvement “and/or insisting that Marvin Mailey be promoted to major is unprecedented and completely contrary to the past promotional patterns established by the [Dover Police Department}.”

In their grievances, officers cited race and color as factoring into the promotion process.

After allegations against Mr. Carey were made, which he denied, the mayor resigned less than two days after being asked, according to the city of Dover in a news release.

Hostile workplace alleged

Regarding the promotions, Lt. McKeown said, “I feel there has been obvious and overwhelming emotional damage this has done to my career and emotional state.”

According to Lt. Pires at the time, transfers in Dover Police Department came “as a result of questions, statements and concerns we had with regarding the now retired Chief James Hosfelt’s ability to lead the [department].”

Continuing on in the grievance, Lt. Pires wrote, “The environment at [Dover Police Department] has been a hostile one and extremely stressful for me and the other members of the staff for over a year, to the point where I have felt the need to take time off of work to avoid the hostility …”

Mr. Richardson also cited the hostile and stressful situation in his grievance for several months and said, “I do not know how this situation can be adjusted.”

Four officers have since retired, and Capt. Stump remains as Dover PD’s administrative captain. Mr. Scott is now employed in a civilian spot as the agency’s crime analyst and accreditation staffer.

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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