NEW BEDFORD — The three police officers who were disciplined after responding to the Hugh Dunn car crash were awarded reduced suspensions by an arbitrator this month after he determined there was insufficient evidence to show any of the officers gave Dunn favorable treatment due to his position as a city councilor.
The New Bedford Police Department previously issued the officers three- or 20-day suspensions after investigators found the responding officers handled the incident very poorly and “failed to ask the most basic questions” while investigating the crash.
For Abraham Nazario, who was the primary responding officer on scene and received a 20-day suspension, the arbitrator found his suspension must be reduced to 15 days, and that he be “made whole” for five days of lost wages.
“It cannot be found that Officer Nazario provided favorable or preferential treatment to Mr. Dunn,” arbitrator Gary D. Altman wrote in his decision, issued Aug. 15. Altman noted, however, that Nazario was “totally remiss” in fulfilling his duties to investigate the crash.
Dunn is awaiting trial on charges of OUI, negligent operation of a motor vehicle and leaving the scene of property damage. He was operating a vehicle that struck two parked cars after he was served alcoholic beverages at Cork Wine and Tapas, per state police. The state issued charges after New Bedford police did not issue any.
For the other responding officers — Jesse Branagan, who has served about 17 years; and Algimantas Harrell, who has served nearly 10 years — the arbitrator also stated it cannot be found that the officers provided “favorable or preferential treatment” of Dunn.
According to reports from Massachusetts State Police and NBPD’s professional standards division, investigators stated a responding EMS provider said one of the officers communicated that Dunn was a city councilor. All three officers denied this in interviews.
An NBPD internal investigator in his report wrote that he did not believe the officers’ claim that none knew of Dunn’s position, or that none told EMS that.
Ultimately, the arbitrator found there was insufficient evidence to show that officers gave favorable treatment to Dunn.
“The City thus argues that at least one of the police officers knew that Mr. Dunn was a New Bedford City Councilor,” the arbitrator wrote. “… the very serious allegation that Mr. Dunn was given favorable treatment because of his position as a City Councilor cannot be substantiated.”
Nazario testified he was acting as a “‘community care taker’ to ensure that Mr. Dunn received the proper medical attention, and that he could follow up later with Mr. Dunn about the circumstances that gave rise to his hitting the parked cars,” the award document states.
Nazario, who has been with the department for about 14 years, also stated he did not believe he had probable cause for an arrest and that there was no evidence of impairment. He did not follow Dunn to the hospital to get a statement from him for the official report, instead taking it about two days later.
The officers did not administer a field sobriety test on scene or ask Dunn where he was coming from and if he had been drinking prior to the accident, according to police reports.
The arbitration document states that the police union maintains NBPD does not have the same resources as Massachusetts State Police to investigate car crashes, and that the department had been very busy during that shift.
The arbitrator ruled Branagan’s three-day suspension should be reduced to one day, and that Harrell should not have been suspended at all. Instead, Harrell’s discipline should be reduced to a written disciplinary warning, and both officers be “made whole” for lost wages.
Per the award document, the parties — the New Bedford Police Union and the City of New Bedford — presented their case in proceedings in March and April. Both parties had the opportunity to examine and cross-examine witnesses and to submit documentary evidence.
Any suspensions greater than five days must be given by Mayor Jon Mitchell, according to Lt. Scott Carola, public information officer for the department.
Per Carola, an appeal process over discipline is often started by the police union filing a grievance on behalf of an officer, who is alleging the discipline is unfair. A hearing takes place, with a hearing officer reporting his or her findings to the mayor.
If the mayor upholds the discipline, an officer can file with the American Arbitration Association (AAA).
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According to the AAA, many parties will voluntarily follow the arbitrator’s decision, but the AAA and the arbitrator do not have the authority to actually make a party do what the award says.
However, the winning party may go to court to “confirm” the arbitration award, and the court can enforce it.
The city and union must split the arbitrator’s fee equally for this case.
Police Union President Chris Cotter did not immediately respond to a question on the cost of the arbitration.
City spokesperson Mike Lawrence said the city’s half of the arbitration cost is $7,150, meaning $14,300 in total between both parties to address the officers’ appeals of their suspensions.
Police Chief Paul Oliveira did not immediately respond to comment Monday as he was out of office, but Mitchell provided comment.
“When Chief Oliveira levied these suspensions last year, I said the discipline was appropriate, and I stand by that today,” Mitchell said in a written statement.
Councilor Dunn’s bench trial was originally set for March of 2022, but his attorney Tim Walsh filed a joint motion in March requesting more time due to arbitration involving witnesses.
Walsh discussed the ongoing arbitration in court last month when the judge asked why Dunn’s case has been in the status phase for so long. The defense attorney stated the arbitration, set to conclude soon, might include testimony that conflicts with testimony provided during the “clerk’s hearing.”
Dunn had a clerk magistrate hearing, also known as a show cause hearing, in September of 2021, during which several people provided testimony about the car crash, its aftermath and Dunn’s alleged behavior, including Branagan and one of the EMS responders.
Dunn’s bench trial is now scheduled for October. Email Anastasia E. Lennon at email@example.com.