Investigation: Former chief created ‘toxic work environment’ at Blackstone PD

Investigation: Former chief created ‘toxic work environment’ at Blackstone PD

BLACKSTONE – Bullying, favoritism and workplace harassment were among the allegations leveled at former Blackstone Police Chief Ross Atstupenas in summary findings of an investigation conducted earlier this year.

The findings, released this week, say Atstupenas violated several department rules over the course of his time as chief, including conduct unbecoming of an officer, courtesy, professional image, report rule violation and fighting/quarreling. According to the report, officers and civilian personnel interviewed for the investigation described Atstupenas as a “bully” and “micromanager” who “has favorites” and “regularly screams and yells at officers and employees.”

Atstupenas couldn't immediately be reached for comment on the report.

The former chief left the department in July, three months after the Board of Selectmen voted to initiate an investigation. The action came amid several years of tension between the chief and officers, with a majority of union membership voting no confidence in him last July.

Paul L’Italien, a retired state trooper and licensed private investigator, conducted the investigation. In his report, L’Italien states he was charged with identifying the “root cause” of a toxic work environment and interviewed all sworn officers of the department, including Atstupenas.

“It is the findings of my investigation that the ‘root cause’ of the toxic work environment at the Blackstone Police Department is caused by the inconsistent management approach and poor people skills of Chief Ross Atstupenas,” he said in a summary of findings addressed to Town Administrator Daniel Keyes in June.

Among the examples listed in the report, L’Italien describes several instances where Atstupenas allegedly disciplined officers and civilian employees beyond what was required of the situation, including counseling an officer for giving a female prisoner the wrong blanket and counseling an officer for mishandling a barking dog complaint that had occurred eight months earlier. Officers interviewed described carefully choosing when to speak to the chief depending on his mood, according to L’Italien.

The report also details several instances of alleged favoritism within the department. In one case, the report said, Atstupenas took no action against dispatcher Sandy Cabral even after it was confirmed she had stolen twice from the department and was suspected of stealing a third time. Officer Gregory Tappan, the report states, also benefited from the chief’s favoritism, with Atstupenas opting not to conduct an investigation after he learned Tappan had an off-duty incident that involved the Mansfield, Dartmouth and Westport police departments.

Other allegations described in the report include:

• Firing a probationary officer for applying to another job.

• Issuing a letter to a dispatcher for sitting in the wrong chair.

• Disciplining an officer for having an unsecured taser in a closed but unlocked locker.

• Failing to investigate whether a department employee had a relationship with a person in state custody.

• And prohibiting officers from eating or drinking in police cruisers or drinking coffee before the second hour of their shift.

According to the report, Atstupenas denied several allegations and said he couldn’t remember others. The report indicates there were no concerns about his oversight in administrative matters, including payroll and the annual department budget.

The findings reveal a deteriorating relationship between the former chief and the police union, with Atstupenas describing an escalation in the number of grievances filed by the union in recent years. Though Atstupenas and his supporters blamed current union leadership for the problems, L’Italien cited a state police report from 2007 that showed the tensions have gone back a number of years.

The summary also details a soured relationship between Atstupenas and Lt. Gregory Gilmore, his second-in-command. In one instance, the report states, the chief charged the clothing allowances of Gilmore and another officer to pay the cost of two cars mistakenly towed from Woonsocket. In another, the chief received a written reprimand for speaking disparagingly about Gilmore, a charge he later denied.

Gilmore, a 17-year veteran, was sworn in as the new chief last month after serving as acting chief when Atstupenas was placed on leave. His swearing-in ceremony was attended by nearly all union members.

Despite the tensions within the department, Atstupenas has enjoyed widespread support in the town, where he and his wife are longtime residents. Since April, residents have criticized the town administrator and Board of Selectmen’s handling of the matter and demanded information about the investigation.

Members of the board said they plan to release a full, redacted version of the report online on Oct. 16.