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Discipline Delayed for Police Officer in Westminster

December 19, 2018

WESTMINSTER -- Police Officer Nate Hawkins is facing disciplinary action, including conduct unbecoming a police officer, after he admitted to failing to comply with department policy. The Board of Selectmen heard evidence against Hawkins at a disciplinary hearing Tuesday night. The board will decide what punishment to impose upon Hawkins at a later date.

The allegations stem from an incident on Oct. 21 of last year, when Hawkins viewed a recording of surveillance footage of a meeting that had occurred two days prior in the police station conference room between Acting Police Chief Michael McDonald and then-chair of the Police Chief Search Committee Steve Hemman. Hawkins then accessed the footage in the department’s communication center and used his personal cellphone to record portions of the meeting. Hawkins then transmitted the video to another member of the Search Committee, Christopher Redkey.

At the hearing, Hawkins admitted to recording and transmitting the video, in violation of department policy, but said he only did so to expose what he thought was evidence of corruption, bias, and an improper meeting between a Search Committee member and a candidate for the position of police chief.

Hawkins said he had been made aware that Redkey suspected scores in the hiring tests had been altered to favor McDonald, and that he felt an obligation to expose what he viewed was possible corruption.

“I was solely acting as a sworn officer adhering to the code of ethics for law enforcement,” Hawkins said, adding that to have followed proper department procedure to obtain the tape and make it public would have meant going to McDonald to get him to sign off on the request. ”(That) clearly would not have happened since he was in the video I was disclosing. I felt as though I owed it to the residents of Westminster, as a steward of the town and a public servant, to bring to light the actions of town employees, on behalf of the acting chief, who were suspected of possibly altering the outcome of a hiring process.”

Hawkins’ attorney, John Becker, said his client was acting as a “whistle-blower” on behalf of the public when he recorded the meeting and sent video of it to Redkey. Becker said there were “mitigating circumstances” in the case against his client, and asked the board to impose minimum disciplinary action against Hawkins.

“Officer Hawkins has never denied that what he did was violation of (the department’s) public records policy,” Becker told the selectmen. “He acknowledges that (and) understands some minimal discipline may be appropriate.”

Becker said two of the most serious charges against Hawkins -- conduct unbecoming a police officer and abuse of position -- were not sustained by the evidence. Becker further argued that Hemman and McDonald had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the conference room, and noted that there were several signs indicating that all conversations could be monitored and recorded.

“There’s no way that a reasonable person could have a conversation in that room and not realize that it would be recorded,” Becker said. “The idea that this was a private conversation is just not the case.” He also pointed out that the department’s surveillance video was regularly accessed by all members of the Police Department on a regular basis. “There is no policy, no rule, (and) no regulation that instructs officers that they cannot listen to or watch surveillance video of anything that happens in that room,” Becker said.

But Selectman Wayne Walker said he was troubled by allegations that Hawkins attempted to cover up his actions after the fact.

“Once it was discovered by the acting chief that you had accessed, watched, and released the video recording in question -- a clear violation of several departmental policies, rules, and regulations -- did you attempt to cover up these facts by trying to encourage others to state falsely that you had followed proper procedures to obtain the recording, and by subsequently having the document or documents relating to the cover-up shredded?” Walker asked.

“No sir,” Hawkins said. “Not that I recall.”

Hawkins said he recorded the video onto his private cellphone because he did not know how long the footage would remain on the Police Department’s hard-drive.

“So, observing what I believed to be bias or possible public corruption, I wanted to ensure that I had the evidence myself, in case there were issues,” Hawkins said.

But Walker said that putting the video on his personal cellphone and transmitting it to an unauthorized third party was, by itself, an abuse of Hawkins’ position.

“Because if you were not a police officer in the town of Westminster, you never would have had access to that recording unless you had filed the proper paperwork and had prior clearance as approved by the acting police chief,” Walker said. “But when an officer observes something that’s unethical, he has a duty to act,” Hawkins responded.

Becker said his client had a reasonable assumption to believe his request to make the video public through proper channels would be denied. He also pointed out that nobody was disputing that the video was a matter of public record.

“And anyone could have walked in off the street and asked for a copy of that video,” Becker said, adding that he and his client agreed that proper procedure was not followed in this case. “What we disagree with is that we believe mitigating circumstances explain why (Hawkins) did not use proper procedure,” he said.

However, Town Counsel Tim Zessin told the board that Hawkins could have and should have gone through the proper channels to release the video to the public, and that his request would have likely been approved.

“Officer Hawkins is now making the argument that he felt that he could not do so because had he done so, he would have been reprimanded in some way or retaliated against based on making that request,” Zessin said. “It doesn’t appear, based on the evidence, that there’s any valid or reasonable basis for that, but that’s his argument today.”

McDonald told the board that he knew full well he was being recorded when he met with Hemman in the conference room.

“I had nothing to hide,” McDonald said. “If anyone asked me the next day for that recording, I had nothing to hide.” He said had Hawkins’ made a request for the video through the proper channels, it likely would have been approved. “I release those things on a regular basis.”

Walker said the charges that Hawkins was not disputing -- the release of public records, the dissemination of public information, and the removal or duplication of department files without authorization -- were “serious matters.”

Hemman stepped down as chair of the Search Committee after Redkey filed an Open Meeting Law violation last month with the state Attorney General’s office. At that time, McDonald was one of six semifinalists for the position of police chief. Hemman has denied the allegations he changed any candidates scoring sheets, but said there were some tabulation errors that were not intentional.

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