State Police Tell Story of Heroes and Villains in Cranston

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A basic rule of literary analysis is that every document is a text, every text has an author, and every author has his or her own set of beliefs, biases, limitations, and interests.  This principle applies whether the text is Melville’s Moby Dick, Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or the Rhode Island State Police’s Assessment of the Cranston Rhode Island Police Department 2014-2015.

The state police text purports to be an analysis of the operation and problems of the Cranston PD, but it plainly fails at that task.  It’s not a report with analysis; it’s a story with a narrative.  It’s incredibly opinionated — to the point of being one-sided — and no responsible reader should take its contents as objective, unvarnished fact.

Two caveats should accompany that statement.  First, being a heavily political document does not inherently make the report’s conclusions incorrect, in part or in whole, or make the other side of the story more accurate or justify any of the behavior described within the text.  Second, one need not have a political affiliation with the targets of the report in order to identify the reasons the state police writers should be treated with skepticism or conclude that they are writing with an extreme bias.

The Authors

The authors of the report — Captain Kevin Barry and Lieutenant Matthew Moynihan — are not disinterested third-party analysts, but rather, participants in the narrative itself.  In January 2014, State Police Colonel Steven O’Donnell appointed Barry and Moynihan to run the Cranston PD while compiling the report.  They held their positions in Cranston for ten months.

Indeed, Captain Barry lists his time as “acting Chief of Police/Colonel of the Cranston Police Department” among the professional roles he’s held during his career on his official biography.  Doing so is in no way suspicious or unjustified, but it illustrates his personal interest in his subject matter.  If he were ever to seek a full-time position as chief, he would rightly list that experience on his résumé.  Clearly, both Barry and Moynihan have a deep personal interest in how people perceive the Cranston Police Department before, during, and after their time there.

Apart from their own work product, Captain Barry and Lieutenant Moynihan work for Colonel O’Donnell.  As the superintendent of the state police, O’Donnell serves at the pleasure of the governor, who is at this time progressive Democrat Gina Raimondo.  She may very well have lost her campaign, last year, to Republican Cranston Mayor Allan Fung — a key figure in the report — had it been a two-way race.  She and her party have an undeniable reason to be very pleased at the extent to which the report undercuts one of the few remaining Republicans with any statewide name recognition.

Obviously, the conditions of O’Donnell’s employment do not prove untoward influence on the report as a form of political attack, but readers must be aware of it.  As much as Rhode Islanders, and the colonel himself, should expect the state police to operate without political motivation, O’Donnell’s job is ultimately within the political sphere.

As the authors, Barry and Moynihan have clear incentive to consider their supervisor’s interests in the final outcome of the analysis.  If there could be any doubt that this consideration was on their minds, the captain and lieutenant dispel it by including a one-page statement from O’Donnell toward the end of the document offering his side of a public dispute between Fung and O’Donnell that occurred after Barry and Moynihan had completed their work operating the Cranston PD.  They present no opposing statement from the mayor.

To complete the circuit of the authors’ professional interests in their subject matter, one must also note that the new chief of the Cranston PD was their state police colleague before he took over for Barry in Cranston, Colonel Michael Winquist.  Winquist had been Lieutenant Colonel/Deputy Superintendent with the state police.

Even if Barry and Moynihan had no strong personal relationship with their former superior, his success or failure in Cranston will reflect on their own agency.  As evidenced both in the report and through a review of the Cranston PD’s current command staff, Winquist is now heavily reliant on other key figures within the report for his success as the chief.  He also has a deep occupational interest in establishing his own authority distinct from the mayor’s — to some degree in conflict with him.

Report Design

That the state police assessment more resembles a narrative than an analysis is proven simply by the makeup of the document.  Any analysis will require some subjectivity, but it should strive to make objective facts as clear and easy to assess for the reader as possible.  In this case, the reader receives almost no facts that are not embedded within the narrative and surrounded with opinion.

A few early sections have cursory descriptions of the department’s overall workforce, with some promotion details for higher ranking officers, but there is nowhere a clear and objective summary of the people described within the text.  Consequently, subjects appear throughout the text — substantiating others’ statements or establishing facts, such as the mayor’s awareness of some incident — without the reader’s having context to know whether to trust that subject.

The existence of a “team A” and “team B” factional attitude within the Cranston PD is critical to the analysis, but the report offers no straightforward way to understand which officers might have been aligned with each faction or, for that matter, which are currently under Winquist as the command staff.

Similarly, a timeline of key facts is critical to assessing why certain players’ actions may have been taken or who should be considered the heroes and villains of the narrative.  The most egregious example of the significance of this deficiency has to do with accreditation.

Very early in the report (pages 9 and 10), Barry and Moynihan cite a report from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). With the obvious intention of lauding the new Chief Winquist, they highlight CALEA’s statement that, “There is no doubt that the failure of leadership… will not reoccur under Colonel Winquest and his executive staff’s leadership.”

The state police authors then note that Winquist took Major Todd Patalano with him to Nevada to accept the reaccreditation.  Patalano, as the reader comes to learn, was a central figure from one of the department’s two factions and therefore a target of the officers whom Barry and Moynihan present as the villains.

The primary villain is Colonel Marco Palombo, making it conspicuous that the authors wait until page 163 to highlight the fact that it was only in March 2012 that the department had been accredited for the first time — under his leadership.  This detail is important not only because it credits Palombo with a substantial accomplishment, but also because the timing is significant in the case against Mayor Fung.

Specifically, in page 57, Barry and Moynihan make a point of explaining that, in May 2012, Patalano had given Fung evidence “to support the claim” that “the situation at the police Department had become unmanageable.”  Their opinion comes through that Fung should hve acted on the information.  The fact that the department had just been accredited for the first time is clearly important to consider when assessing Fung’s reaction to Patalano’s claim, but Barry and Moynihan omit it until much later.  Apparently, they consider reaccreditation important in establishing the credibility of Winquist and Patalano, so the reader should conclude that their omission of a similar (arguably greater) achievement from the controversial part of their assessment indicates a desire to discredit their villains.

The example of accreditation also touches on another conspicuous deficiency in the report.  The text provides the reader (i.e., the people of Rhode Island) with very few original documents as evidence.  In fact, the only original documents offered in the appendix are two anonymous letters sent to the state police making assertions about the department’s controversies.

There’s no way, therefore, to put the quotations that the authors sprinkle throughout the document in context.  Perhaps the original 2012 accreditation made similarly glowing assertions about Palombo as about Winquist; maybe the 2015 reaccreditation report raised some concerns.  Without performing their own extensive research, readers have no choice but to trust the authors, who, as stated above, have clear reason for bias.

Finally, the report is rife with editorial commentary skewed to support the authors’ preferred narrative.  Just prior to the statement that the department “had become unmanageable,” Barry and Moynihan write that, “Captain Patalano is a competent police officer with an unblemished record, who has served within the Cranston Police Department for the past nineteen (19) years.”   That may be true, but at that spot on the timeline, Fung had reason to be doubtful of Patalano’s credibility.  The authors’ opinions about Patalano, with the hindsight of multiple investigations, are an unfair weight to balance against the mayor’s actions three years earlier.

In contrast, when presenting a rare direct transcript — of a conversation with “villain” Captain Stephen Antonucci — Barry and Moynihan offer a disclaimer that they’re only providing the word-for-word transcript so that the reader can discern “the condescending tone and the inability of Captain Antonucci to recognize his professional and ethical responsibilities.”  Again, the authors may have the correct impressions of Antonucci, but it’s crystal clear that the goal of their report is to build an argument and a case against the people whom they’ve identified as the bad guys.

Such an exercise may be useful to Cranston and to Rhode Island, but nobody (particularly in the news media) should mistake the report for an objective assessment of the fundamental problems in the Cranston Police Department or the steps that the mayor and command staff can take to fix them and to ensure that they do not happen again.  An analytical report should deconstruct a narrative, breaking it down into its component parts, not design the text in order to create a narrative.

The “Teams”

One problem in the Cranston Police Department that absolutely cannot be denied is the factional division among the officers.  This may be the most important paragraph that Barry and Moynihan wrote:

We were informed of a division within the Department, which consisted of two (2) factions, an “A Team” and a “B Team.” This was known as a way of life within the Department that dated back for as long as many could remember. There was a clear dissension caused by this division.  Whichever faction was empowered within the Department, the opposing side would do whatever it took to disrupt the operation of the empowered faction.  We were surprised at how deeply rooted this problem was and at what lengths some would go to embarrass or make members on the other “team” fail.  It was clear to us that this division needed to end immediately.  Members needed to respect each other and work together in order to increase morale and create a positive work environment. Favoritism needed to end, and discipline and accountability needed to be restored.  This subculture was evident in many of the comments provided by members who were interviewed.

The state police officers may assert that it was foremost in their minds to “end” the divisiveness, but based on the report, no reader (or resident of Cranston) should have confidence that they have done so.  For one thing, Steven Frias, who acts as a sort of historian of Cranston in the Providence Journal, traces the division back to a change of command back in 1950, and there’s no reason to assume that wasn’t just the earliest incident for which Frias could find evidence.  The actual political culture of the department could be older still.

More importantly — to get right to the point — the overwhelming sense of the report is that the state police officers active in Cranston have simply picked one team and sided with its members.  Yes, the quote above lays out the problem well, and in a way that would lead one to trust the sincerity of the authors.  Yes, the topic of the teams does appear here and there throughout the report.  Indeed, in a statement from new-Chief Winquist toward the end of the report (again, without providing Mayor Fung the same courtesy), Mayor Fung worries that the team problem is reemerging.

But the state police report never treats this division as if it is a real issue in which the actual players in the drama have roles, or at least in which there are two sides.  Reading the report, one cannot doubt that Palombo and Antonucci and some of their close associates are part of a team, but the impression of Barry and Moynihan’s text is that there is no other team that ever pushes back.

This is a critical, and suspicious, bias in the document.

One of the central controversies in the report has to do with Patalano’s habit of secretly recording his interactions with officers from the other team.  He even explains his paranoia by noting that he was one of only two command staff members remaining after the retirement of the prior chief, Colonel Stephen McGrath, who left after a vote of no confidence by the members of the department.  At one point, the facts suggest that, while on long-term leave, Patalano was receiving information from Palombo’s executive secretary. The authors let that revelation drift away and strive to make it a negative for Palombo, because he treated like a crime something that might only have been a violation of “administrative Department rule and regulation.”

This particular bias also raises questions about one of the most disturbing anecdotes in the report.  For all of the in-fighting, there is only one incident in the report having to do with somebody who isn’t actually part of the department: an executive from a technology company that works with the municipal government of Cranston.  At one point, while trying to get computer passcodes, Palombo becomes irate, to the point that he dispatches an officer to the executive’s house in another town.

Through some technical wizardry from another tech company and with the intervention of Mayor Fung and his administration, the conflict is resolved quickly.  However, a few months later, the executive was picking up his child from a skate park in Narragansett when an “unknown male” approached him to make sure he knew that Palombo had sent a detective to his house.  The executive told the state police that “it seemed like organized crime the way I was treated.”

It’s possible that, in a fit of chutzpa months after the incident, Palombo decided that he didn’t want the executive to get away without knowing about the chief’s reach.  More plausible is that somebody from the other “team” tracked the executive down and gave him the information hoping he’d make noise about Palombo in City Hall.

Anybody who’s seen The Godfather knows that much of the risk of organized crime is being caught in the crossfire between warring families.

If a reader approaches the state police assessment with an open mind to the possibility that Winquist and his associates didn’t so much raise up innocent victims of the feud as they chose a side, the parallels become striking.  Just as the bulk of Chief McGrath’s team were forced out along with him, so too with Chief Palombo.  The other side is simply “empowered” now, to use language from the above quotation.

It may be that Chief Winquist, with the support of his state police brethren, will be a strong enough leader finally to end internal issues that have lasted for more than half a century.  Here again, though, there is reason for concern.

The first is the bias of the report itself.  Those with whom Winquist has chosen to align are presented as the heroes, in opposition to the villains.  That sort of black-hat versus white-hat picture tends not to be reliable, particularly when all agree that the feud is so long-standing.  Without a fair reckoning of the errors and abuses of both sides, any peace is likely to be fleeting.

The second reason for concern is the political dimension.  One of the objectives of the state police report appears to be to diminish the mayor’s authority over the police department.  That may or may not be healthy at this particular moment in Cranston’s history, depending on the key players and the execution.  However, one side’s “political interference” is another side’s “respect for the chain of command” and cooperation with the civic authorities.

The report repeatedly faults Mayor Fung for failing to heed warnings from officers within the department that he ought to take on the chief of police.  Yet, the first of its recommendations is that the mayor “must work directly with the chief to resolve problems within the Department.”

The report gives ample evidence that Fung was wrong not to challenge Palombo more frequently.  However, Barry and Moynihan then turn around at the end of their analysis and complain that “allowing members of the Police Department to deal directly with the Mayor and or his staff undermines the authority of the Chief of Police,” which is a jaw-dropping reversal of the insinuations the authors had made throughout the previous 169 pages.

Worse still, there are some indications that the police divide is — with the help of Winquist —now blending into the political realm.  When Fung recommended a forced disability retirement for Captain Thomas Dodd — the other remaining McGrathite — the lone “no” vote on the City Council came from Democrat Council President John Lanni.

Later, in the statement that the authors provide from Winquist, he describes a disagreement with Fung over how to resolve continuing legal disputes with Captain Antonucci.  “After leaving the meeting with Mayor Fung,” he writes, “I spoke with City Council President John E. Lanni Jr. … and advised [him] of Mayor Fung’s intentions.”  So, when in disagreement with the mayor — who is the chief’s direct superior — Winquist sought the support of the mayor’s political opposition.

The union is another indication.  One of the undeniable problems of the Cranston PD, during Mayor Fung’s tenure, had been the lack of any healthy friction between the mayor, the chief of police, and the police union, of which Antonucci was the president.  That dynamic gives people not on the right “team” nowhere to turn for orderly resolution of problems.

The situation has simply flipped.  Between September 2010 and June 2013, the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 301 donated $1,650 to Allan Fung’s campaign account.  With the rooting out of one “team” from both the department command staff and the union leadership, Local 301 began giving Council President Lanni donations instead, with $700 in October 2014 alone.

Conclusion

Even adjusting for the obvious bias of the report, readers of a certain age would be justified in bringing to mind Captain Queeg from The Caine Mutiny.  It’s clear that there was dissention from Colonel Palombo’s leadership, and given the history, it wasn’t irrational for him to have some level of suspicion, but he spun out of control with paranoia.  Meanwhile, Antonucci appears to have been everything that Rhode Islanders fear a union president can be, as flared into view with the overnight-parking-ticket scandal that started the whole investigation.

Unfortunately, this all came to a head as Mayor Fung was gearing up for a run for higher office. Not a bold leader, anyway, he would have been less inclined to wade into a complicated mess.  Even under the best of circumstances, attempting to unravel a factional feud three score years in the making at a time when the union leadership is aligned with a paranoid, overbearing chief would have to become the focus of a mayor’s term of office and might very well cost him his political career, even doing everything right.

A factual look at the timeline doesn’t salvage any illusion that Fung is a tremendous leader, but it does leave him some claim to reasonable management and worthwhile policy ideas.  On page 33, Barry and Moynihan spend a paragraph faulting Fung for failing to take steps “to correct the fracturing within the Police Department after becoming Mayor and prior to the no confidence vote” that unseated Colonel McGrath, but that was a span of just a few months upon his first entering office.

The next period of significant activity came three years later, in spring 2012, when the mayor began receiving more vehement warnings that things were going wrong within the department.  But at the same time, the national accreditation weighed on the positive side of the scale, which may have justified some skepticism about the claims that officers were making against the chief.  After all, the people making the claims were from the faction that was out of power.

Then, less than a year passed before Fung did put his foot down with Palombo after the incident with the tech executive.  Again, the authors fault him for not taking much-more-decisive action, and a leader would have done so, but the thorny culture of the department had not magically disappeared, even if the state police narrative leaves it out.  Decisions with so many complications are very easy to second guess.

The remainder of 2013 brought the whirlwind of Palombo losing control, culminating in the November ticketing incident.  Around the same time, talks attempting to bring Patalano fully back to work in the department broke down.

It only took until January, then, for Mayor Fung to bring in the state police and for Patalano to be reinstated.  In April, the mayor announced publicly his recommendation that Antonucci’s employment be terminated.  The timeline from collapse to resolution is actually pretty short, all things considered.

Regarding Antonucci, at some point before Fung’s recommendation, we learn, Barry and Moynihan were proposing that Antonucci be permitted back to work with a demotion in rank, a punitive period of unpaid suspension, and a public apology.  (It’s notable that we learn of these discussions not from the authors’ main narrative, but from the statement from Winquist that they inserted in full toward the end of the report.  Indeed, the account given by the report’s authors on page 2 differs in important ways from Winquist’s, but that needn’t be explored, here.)

At some point prior to the appointment of Colonel Winquist, the mayor apparently worked out a deal with Antonucci that would bring him back with no reduction in rank, an unpaid suspension during which he would be permitted to use up his accumulated sick and vacation days to supplement his pay, and a public apology.  It bears noting that, at the end of the legal process in June of this year, the final outcome was that Antonucci — who had been on paid administrative leave the whole time — would remain on paid leave until April 2016, at which point he could retire (presumably receiving any contractual reimbursement for unused sick and vacation time).

Reasonable people could argue that no deal returning Antonucci to work should ever have been entertained because a clear signal had to be sent that his behavior in the ticketing scandal was unacceptable.  (Indeed, that is my view, including the additional expectation that the cost of losing such an obvious case could later be provided to the public as proof that the entire labor union system in Rhode Island is deeply flawed.)  Whatever one’s view of management priorities, however, it’s difficult to fault the mayor for attempting to negotiate a deal that, while not as punitive as Barry and Moynihan were initially willing to make, was still more punitive than the final resolution.

The report authors reprint a great deal of hearsay that Fung and Antonucci were very close, and some in the public have concluded that Fung was saying one thing publicly while negotiating secretly for a special deal.  That is not necessarily the case.  Between the April recommendation and Winquist’s appointment, the mayor may have become convinced of the ultimate outcome and changed his view.

Winquist’s statement emphasizes Fung’s insistence that he (Fung) had given Antonucci “his word,” so it’s likely that he had received some promise in return.  It’s conceivable, for example, that Antonucci had promised to lay low as a reinstated captain and then to retire at first opportunity.  Moreover, anybody who isn’t intimately familiar with the politics of the Cranston Police Department must also leave open the possibility that the “teams” still very much exist and that a humbled Antonucci might have been useful in ironing out the last of the bad feelings, under the close guidance of Winquist.

These possibilities are mere speculation, though.

No speculation is necessary in order to observe that the officers of the state police who have in some way been involved in Cranston picked a “team” and that the report that they’ve released to the public — and which has caused such a political stir ever since — is designed to reinforce their choice.  Perhaps their judgment is sound; perhaps the McGrathites were really the good cops, so to speak; perhaps the integrity of Chief Winquist will help the department to heal from its multigenerational divisions, benefiting from the mayor’s political inability really to exercise his authority as Public Safety Director and the political help of the mayor’s opposition on the City Council.  Perhaps.

The one-sidedness of the report gives reason for concern, though, as does the failure of anybody in state politics or media to question its objectivity.  Sooner or later, power and a lack of accountability will corrupt, and the only real protection against that inevitability is a system that forces people to live up to their ideals.  For such a system to be possible,  those who analyze the workings of government must offer the public clear-eyed analysis, not a story about heroes and villains.



  • Northern Exposure

    So glad you did this analysis. When I read the report and then the Frias analysis in the Providence Journal I thought I might be reading the history of the Woonsocket Police Department! A reading of the news reports regarding the Raymond “Beaver” Tempest case makes clear the effect the extreme animus between the two sides that existed within the Woonsocket department for decades. I suspect this “culture” exists in many departments across the state and country.
    As to the State Police, you so correctly note the political nature of their report. There is so much lacking as to make the report useless in any attempt to change the culture within the department. And the whole problem really does boil down to the union and their determination to have absolute control over the police leadership, whether through political relationships with the public safety director (mayor) or unbalanced collective bargaining allowed by lopsided state law in favor of public safety unions.

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