Marblehead officer’s ‘day in court’ finally nears

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By the time Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer convenes a hearing to determine whether further disciplinary action is warranted against Christopher Gallo in late February or early March, the town will have paid the Marblehead police officer approximately $140,000 not to come to work.

Gallo has been off the job since June 16, 2021. He was initially given a five-day suspension and placed on paid administrative leave after the Massachusetts Inspector General’s Office on June 9 delivered to the town the results of its investigation into photos purporting to document Gallo’s official police vehicle parked at his residence when he was supposed to be on duty, spanning months. 

The 11 Gerry St. headquarters of the Marblehead Police Department on Jan. 16. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

To confirm the IG’s findings, the Marblehead Police conducted its own investigation, and outgoing Police Chief Robert O. Picariello issued the suspension “for non-compliance to [department policy on] devotion to duty and failure to report for duty.”

Gallo appealed, and he was placed on administrative leave with pay, pending a hearing to determine whether further disciplinary action should be taken.

Very little has changed since, other than some of the players who will have a hand in deciding whether Gallo returns to the Marblehead police force.

The town has a different police chief, Dennis King, who in his early days on the job handed Gallo a five-day suspension of his own related to an alleged off-duty assault on July 26, 2021. It was the seventh suspension of Gallo’s MPD career.

Meanwhile, Kezer has been on the job for less than a year, and the town also recently transitioned its legal work on labor matters to new counsel, after the retirement of attorney Marc J. Miller.

To the extent that town officials have been willing to comment on what has been taking so long to resolve Gallo’s situation, they most often cite that churn among key personnel.

Gallo himself is anxious to have his situation resolved, his attorney made clear in a letter to Kezer last summer. Though he has been receiving his base pay, Gallo has at this point missed out on 17 months’ worth of detail and overtime opportunities, attorney Gary G. Nolan of Nolan Perroni in North Chelmsford noted. 

Now, in a matter of weeks, there will finally be some movement, it seems. When he arrives for his hearing before Kezer, Gallo will be bringing plenty of historical baggage with him.

Dubious distinction

As part of the state’s new recertification process for law enforcement officers, the Marblehead Police and its counterparts across Massachusetts had to compile disciplinary history spreadsheets, a copy of which was provided to the Marblehead Current in response to a public records request.

By far, Gallo’s name occupies more rows on that spreadsheet than any other officer — 11. All 11 rows are coded with a “S,” meaning that the complaint against him was “sustained” after an investigation. In addition to the seven suspensions, Gallo has received four reprimands during his 22-plus-year career on the Marblehead force.

Throughout the rest of the department, many officers do not have a single sustained complaint. Two officers have one, and in the case of the only officer with multiple sustained complaints — two — they happened 19 and 23 years ago.

Gallo’s first suspension, for five days, came on Dec. 29, 2014, after Picariello found that Gallo had failed to assist police in Jupiter, Florida with locating a person, hindering their investigation.

When Gallo was suspended for a day on Jan. 20, 2015, for missing annual CPR/first responder training, Picariello noted in the letter he sent Gallo notifying him of the suspension that he had been “previously warned regarding similar infractions in the past.”

On Feb. 19, 2015, Gallo was suspended for two days after he failed to show up for roll call for his midnight shift and needed to be called and woken up. Again, Picariello cited his “past history of infractions such as this.”

On March 6, 2019, Gallo received a one-day suspension due to events that had occurred a month earlier, which in Picariello’s estimation constituted “conduct unbecoming an officer by casting the department and yourself in an unfavorable light.”

During the overnight shift on Feb. 3, 2019, Gallo used his police radio to request immediate assistance at his home. The police reports filed in its immediate aftermath do not fully illuminate the apparent altercation between Gallo and a couple who briefly fled from the responding officers. But Gallo was left with a bruised left eye, the bridge of his nose was bloodied and a wooden door of his home looked like it had either been pushed or kicked in.

The report of Officer Timothy Tufts concludes by noting that Gallo declined to speak to him about the incident.

Those incidents received little notoriety. The events that transpired in Miller Plaza in the early morning hours of May 19, 2020, would be another matter.

Plaza incident

On May 19, 2020, officers called to Miller Plaza were met by a man, who would ultimately be arrested, and a woman who was “impaired,” though it was not immediately clear whether that was due to alcohol, drugs, prescription medication or some other issue. 

By all accounts, the woman was “belligerent, boisterous, profane and uncooperative with officers during the encounter and could have been taken under arrest” for disorderly conduct or taken into protective custody, Capt. Matthew Freeman would write in the report on the department’s internal affairs investigation he would eventually file.

The woman was also agitated because her dog was missing — Gallo eventually found the dog unharmed in a nearby ATM vestibule — and because she objected to an arrest of her male companion.

Freeman’s investigation determined that Gallo failed to respond to multiple radio dispatches on the night in question. After eight minutes, Gallo finally answered, but only because Sgt. Jason Conrad had been able to reach him by cell phone, Freeman found.

But the bigger problem was that the woman claimed that one of the officers had used excessive force — “body slamming” her. At least initially, it was believed that Gallo had been that officer, though Freeman noted in his report that the woman “morphed some of the characteristics of all the officers she interacted with together.”

Freeman based his conclusion on the accounts of two of Gallo’s fellow officers, Luke Peters and Tufts. In Peters’ account, Gallo had driven the woman roughly 3 to 4 feet backwards into plywood covering a damaged wall outside the 7-Eleven.

“Surveillance video substantially corroborates Officer Peters and Tufts statements,” Freeman wrote, though later in his report he also refers to the video as “unclear.”

Nonetheless, Freeman concluded that he could find “NO REASON” (capital letters in original) that Peters and Tufts would corroborate the woman’s account “other than it is true.”

If Peters’ and Tufts’ accounts were true, that would make the testimony Gallo gave during his internal affairs interview “untrue” and “gives rise to the appearance that the official police report he authored had glaring omissions of fact as well,” Freeman wrote.

However, those conclusions would eventually go by the wayside, and one of the darker moments in the department’s recent history seems to have played a role.

Credibility called into question

As residents likely now know, as shifts were changing between 11:30 and 11:45 p.m. on July 1, 2019, Officer Andrew Dimare picked up an empty, flattened can and placed it under the windshield wiper of Tufts’ car.

Tufts responded by using that can to scratch a swastika in the hood of Dimare’s car.

While a handful of officers either had firsthand knowledge of the incident or heard about it shortly thereafter, none of them made an official report, largely deferring to the “victim,” Dimare, who expressed an interest in handling the matter privately with Tufts.

For more than a year, the incident remained a subject of murky police station lore. To the extent that officers had heard about it, some had been left with the impression that it had occurred in winter.

The situation changed dramatically in November 2020. While on leave for the Miller Plaza incident, Gallo maintained contact with his fellow officers and heard rumors of the swastika incident. He decided to check them out.

On Nov. 2, using the ruse of having him retrieve a bag from his locker and bring it to his house, Gallo confirmed the details of the swastika incident with Dimare. He then told him that he was “going to make an issue out of this” as he sought to challenge what he felt was an unjust penalty for the Miller Plaza incident. 

On Nov. 13, Nolan referred to the swastika incident in a lengthy email to then town counsel Miller, which raised questions about the credibility of Tufts’ and Peters’ accounts of the Miller Plaza incident.

“I raise [the swastika] issue only because [the] credibility of the witnesses will be very important should this case go forward,” Nolan wrote.

A week after Nolan’s email, Tufts was placed on administrative leave, and on Dec. 16, 2020, he resigned from the Marblehead police force.

In an apparent concession to Nolan’s claims that Tufts’ and Peters’ accounts of the Miller Plaza incident could not be trusted, a one-page “supplement” was eventually added to Freeman’s report on the internal affairs investigation.

While internal affairs investigation had been “extensive and exhaustive,” the “credibility of certain witnesses” had since been “called into question,” the document reads.

“Upon further investigation, it was determined that other witness statements with respect to Officer Gallo’s alleged use of excessive force and his being untruthful originally relied upon were not credible, and it was determined that Gallo had not used excessive force as originally believed,” the document reads. “After this full review of the matter, Officer Gallo’s use of excessive force and his being untruthful were not substantiated and, therefore, he is exonerated from such allegations.”

Gallo would return to work, but not for long.

Defenses previewed

The Inspector General’s report prompted Picariello to suspend Gallo for a period of five days on June 16, 2021, beginning the period of paid administrative leave that continues to this day.

New chief King then imposed a five-day suspension on Gallo “as it relates to his conduct on July 26, 2021, which prompted a call to Marblehead Police for assistance.”

After Gallo’s period of paid leave stretched beyond a year, Nolan sent a letter to new town administrator Kezer on July 20, 2022, a copy of which was obtained by the Current.

The letter is fashioned as a “notice of claims” pursuant to the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, G.L.c. 258, and the Massachusetts Whistleblower Act, G.L.c. 149, §185.

The official purpose of the letter is to warn the town “not to destroy, conceal or alter any paper or electronic files or documents” that would become relevant, if Nolan files suit against the town on Gallo’s behalf.

But the document also sketches some of the arguments Nolan appears ready to raise in Gallo’s defense in his forthcoming disciplinary hearing.

“The new suspensions of Gallo, by both the outgoing and incoming police chiefs, on the heels of Gallo’s complaint about Tufts’ hateful conduct, constitute unlawful retaliation,” Nolan writes.

Nolan suggests that the IG’s investigation — and the town’s that ensued — are based on “easily edited digital photos.” 

He adds, “It is believed by Gallo and others that Tufts was the source of the anonymous complaint and photos.”

Tufts did not immediately respond to a request for comment on that assertion.

Nolan states that Gallo was nine months into his suspension for allegedly going home on duty before he was questioned about it. His answers were then “misrepresented” to justify King sending a second letter of suspension for the same incident, Nolan asserts.

According to Nolan, the town only interviewed three witnesses during its investigation into Gallo going home, and none of them were Tufts.

Nolan also ties the latter suspension by King to the July 19, 2021, release of a consultant’s report after an independent investigation of the swastika incident Picariello had commissioned.

In that report, Winthrop Police Chief Terence M. Delehanty, operating as principal of Law Enforcement Application Development Strategies LLC, found that Tufts had violated state law regarding the destruction of property but lacked the required element of bias to have committed a hate crime.

Delehanty also concluded that a number of Marblehead officers had violated department policy by failing to report Tufts’ apparent rule violations promptly, though in some cases there were “mitigating factors” for their conduct.

The LEADS report concludes with a series of eight recommendations, including that town and police department policies should be updated and that officers and staff should be offered additional training.

King’s suspension on Aug. 23, 2021, is related to an “alleged off-duty assault” on July 26, 2021, which all of the responding officers and King determined Gallo had not committed, Nolan claims.

“However, regardless of the conclusion that he was falsely accused, Gallo was in any event still suspended for baseless reasons connected to his girlfriend’s medical condition,” Nolan writes. “This suspension was not based on fact but was instead a pretext for unlawful retaliation against Gallo for his reporting of the unlawful Tufts conduct and resulting negative attention he brought on the Police Department and some of its officers.”

Nolan adds that the investigation into Gallo’s off-duty incident was “conducted in violation of the department’s own rules” and “based on misrepresentations of fact.”

What happens next

Adam J. Costa, a partner in the Newburyport firm Mead, Talerman & Costa, which now represents the town in labor matters, told the Current that, in the days since Kezer was appointed as the hearing officer, members of his firm and Nolan have been trying to settle on a date for the hearing, which had not happened as of the Current’s press time. However, both sides expect the hearing to happen in “late February or early March,” according to Costa.

King declined to comment on the situation, citing the upcoming hearing. Neither Kezer nor Nolan had responded to requests for comment as of the Current’s deadline.

Costa said he expected the hearing itself would be conducted privately, but if Kezer concluded that Gallo should be disciplined, the proceedings would become public at that point.

If the process mirrors the one used in 2010 with allegations of misconduct against then-Sgt. Marion Keating, Kezer will make findings of facts and propose possible sanctions, but it will be up to the Select Board whether to adopt both those findings and the recommended penalty. 

Timeline

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