The criminal charges that the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office is trying to bring against City Councilor Hugh Dunn are serious ones. So why have the New Bedford City Council and New Bedford Police Union had almost nothing to say since this case broke more than two months ago?
The matter is serious enough, in fact, that all the way back in May, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, at the state police’s request, suspended Dunn’s driver’s license, citing his continued driving as “an immediate threat to public safety.”
Driving under the influence, leaving the scene of property damage and negligent operation of a vehicle can even be matters of life and death, never mind equal justice before the law, as is one of the issues in the city councilor’s case.
Just ask longtime Mattapoisett Police Chief Mary Lyons, who was placed on a leave of absence Monday just two days after she gave a state trooper a hard time when he stopped her for operating under the influence and a marked lanes violation.
Just ask the New Bedford police officers who will soon be disciplined after failing to give Councilor Dunn a sobriety test, or even to ask him if he had been drinking in the wake of his May 1 crashing his Hyundai into two separate parked cars in the downtown at 1:30 in the morning.
Don’t, however, ask members of the City Council, whose protracted silence on the events surrounding their fellow councilor’s interactions with New Bedford officers has left many in the city believing there is one set of drunken-driving rules for most people, and another set for an elected official who happens to be one of the biggest backers of the New Bedford Police Union.
The council has taken the position that the councilor deserves his day in court, but the Registry of Motor Vehicles could not afford that luxury when it comes to Dunn continuing to drive — and neither should the council when it comes to the Ward 3 councilor deliberating on matters of public safety.
As Councilor Debora Coelho, one of the few councilors with the courage to regularly call a fact a fact said: “I agree he’s hurt the Police Department and brought the council to an uncomfortable position with it. I can’t wait until the investigation is done.”
Besides the majority of councilors, don’t ask the leaders of the police union about Dunn, who is one of the guild’s biggest political supporters in the city. The union has also displayed a disturbing silence, not only on Councilor Dunn’s failure to speak up for its own officers, but on Dunn’s apparent failure to be honest and forthright with those officers about what he had been up to prior to the crashes, and the moving of his car away from the accident site.
Let us stipulate here that Hugh Dunn is, in the opinion of many, a nice guy.
By those accounts, he is a loyal friend and a gentleman. He is well liked on the council — as far as councilors are capable of liking a colleague who might one day be a threat to their own political ambitions. He is certainly not that School Committee member who lets f-bombs fly at public meetings and then storms out of the proceedings.
But this is a serious matter. Any way you cut it.
To say the state police report on the Dunn incident is damning of both the councilor and the three New Bedford police officers who were involved in responding to his accidents, and the fears of those who called in the incident that the perpetrator might be fleeing, would be an understatement.
In fact, District Attorney Tom Quinn’s office was so worried about the public outcry after Dunn appeared to have skated from his actions that his office took the unusual step of asking for a separate investigation of the matter from the New Bedford Police Department’s. After conferring with the city police themselves, he handed it over to the state police.
Meanwhile, a week after the NBPD completed its own investigation of the three officers’ handling of the case, the department is refusing to release that report on the grounds that it is not completed until a decision on discipline for the officers has been finalized. That may or may not hold up under a public records request.
All of this is yet another problem for the NBPD, which has not had a good year in terms of its inner workings. The Dunn case comes on the heels of lack of transparency charges about violent incidents in the city, and two in-department lawsuits charging its command staff with discrimination. It’s fair to also say that a police department that cannot convincingly investigate potential wrongdoing by an influential political figure will inevitably be a police department with a serious credibility problem.
The fact there had to be an internal police investigation as well as the state police brought in has not escaped Mayor Jon Mitchell, who has issued the following statement: “The charges against Councilor Dunn are serious, and like anyone else, he will have the opportunity to present his side of the case in court.”
Well, maybe and maybe not. The case will go before a clerk magistrate, so it’s not clear yet whether there will ever be a trial.
The state police report, obtained by The Standard-Times under a public records request, paints a picture of three New Bedford officers who are either incompetent or worse, and a councilor who is the opposite of what one would hope for in terms of candor from a public official.
The state police say that an EMT and paramedic on the scene the night of the Dunn accidents described it as “obvious” that he had been drinking and that they smelled alcohol on his breath as he sat in the back of a New Bedford patrol car. New Bedford Officer Abraham Nazario, however, wrote in his report that neither he, nor the other two officers present, detected any odor of alcohol at all, and even more startling, that they did not ask the councilor if he had been drinking, even though he had crashed his vehicle twice late at night in an area of town replete with late-night drinking establishments.
The city EMT and paramedic who responded to the scene are also in conflict with the police over whether or not the officers — Nazario, Jesse Branagan and Algimantas Harrell — knew that Dunn was a city councilor, never mind a councilor who is a big supporter of the police union. The officers say they didn’t know, but the paramedic on scene, according to the state police report, stated that one of the officers told him Dunn was a city councilor.
One would think that Hank Turgeon, the president of the police union, would want to rush in here and at least preserve the reputation of the bargaining unit itself. He could at minimum issue a statement acknowledging that the charges all around are serious and that the union will trust the results of the state police investigation. But he has not.
The credibility gap for both Dunn and the officers is even greater than I’ve described so far.
The officers simply accepted Dunn’s explanation that he had taken the allergy medication Benadryl as the seeming reason for the crashes; they either did not bother to ask him, or think to ask him, where he had his “late night dinner” even though it was 1:30 in the morning. Did they not want to know?
Perhaps the city’s EMT and paramedic should have been conducting the investigation. The state police report states that the medical personnel say Dunn denied to them that he had used alcohol. The report then went on to say that Dunn had, in fact, consumed alcoholic beverages at the nearby Cork Wine and Tapas and had left the popular downtown establishment just 20 minutes before the crash.
Impeaching Dunn’s credibility even further is the fact that he moved his car 360 feet from the point of impact of one of the cars he hit despite the fact that, according to the state police detective, “the noise, vibration and control issues from damage would have alerted ‘any reasonable operator’ to discontinue further operation.”
In addition, the state police investigation notes that the councilor told New Bedford police officers that he had been discharged from St. Luke’s Hospital after treatment when, in fact, the hospital records state that he had “eloped” after allegedly telling a nurse he was going to the bathroom. Was his blood alcohol level ever tested before he left?
Hospital staff, according to the state police, assessed that Dunn was “clinically intoxicated with nystagamus — the bouncing or jerking of eyeballs — in both eyes.”
So where do we go from here, New Bedford?
Because the officers did not arrest Dunn at the scene, the only way to possibly bring him to justice according to Massachusetts legal procedure, is for the case to go before a clerk magistrate. That is scheduled for Aug. 16, but it’s doubtful it will ever take place at the Bristol District Court in New Bedford.
The magistrate and assistant magistrates at the local court all work closely with lawyers in this town, or at least know of them, especially if the lawyer is a politician. If for nothing else than the appearances of a conflict, the case will probably be transferred to another jurisdiction.
District Attorney Quinn has already recused his own staff from having to bring the case before a local magistrate for the same reasons of the appearance of a conflict. The request for prosecution has been taken over by Dan Bennett, a former secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety.
The magistrate’s process itself is a secretive one, in order to protect the rights of individuals who have not yet been charged. It takes place behind closed doors, and all that will be known of the proceedings is whether the case is judged worthy of going to trial or not — whether there is “probable cause” that Dunn was drinking and driving, leaving the scene of a property damage and negligent driving. Those are the charges the DA is seeking.
In the case of someone like Dunn, in which the city has already acknowledged wrongdoing by the officers, that process somehow seems unfair. He could conceivably walk away from what the district attorney wants to charge without a trial.
Whatever the truth of what happened that night, it does not appear to be a new circumstance for the city councilor. The state police report recounts a previous encounter with New Bedford police in the same kind of case, also in the downtown. Dunn in January 2017 was taken into protective custody and to police headquarters for walking “aimlessly and highly intoxicated” while looking for his car.
No one is looking for a pound of flesh from Councilor Dunn.
If he has a drinking problem, those who think he has done a good job on the council would certainly wish him well and hope he gets the help he needs. If he does not, then it is simply a matter of judging what happened that night in terms of any violations of the law. But if Dunn continues to take this very lawyerly approach to the facts, it will be hard for people to give him the benefit of that doubt.
As for the three officers, new police Chief Paul Oliveira, in a written statement, has said the department takes violation of its rules and regulations very seriously and “Appropriate discipline is forthcoming in this case.”
That in itself seems odd in a case in which the facts of the charges have yet to be decided. But Oliveira was smart enough to know that not to act with the state police department investigation coming would have been extremely damaging to the public’s confidence in the New Bedford department.
Did the officers think they were using the same discretion they would give anyone for an accident in which there was no personal injury? Maybe. Or were they trying to protect a powerful city official or political ally? Maybe.
One cannot help but feel bad for the patrolmen thrown into this situation. But police face these kinds of situations every day and they need to know better than to do what these officers apparently did.
Just ask the state trooper who booked Chief Mary Lyons after she told him she was the chief of the Mattapoisett Police and initially refused to get out of her car for him.
There is doing the right thing and there is not doing the right thing. The trooper did the right thing and arrested Lyons and charged her. The New Bedford police officers? We have not heard their side of the story yet. But their commanders seem to think they did the wrong thing.
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