Easton Mayor Phil Mitman disbanded the Police Department's Special Weapons and Tactics team and hired an outside adviser for the police chief Thursday to try to end the stream of multimillion- dollar lawsuit settlements strangling the city's finances.
The elimination of SWAT and hiring of retired Colonial Regional Police Chief Daniel Spang comes four months after SWAT team officer Jesse Sollman was fatally shot in the police station, and less than two weeks after three outside consultants' reports exposed long- standing problems in the department.
"We don't need to study or analyze this anymore to start this department on the road to high quality ," Mitman said. "We cannot have the risks of $2 million and $3 million lawsuits anymore. We will be headed toward zero tolerance for lawsuits."
Police union officials angry over the decision to drop the SWAT team called for Police Chief Stephen A. Mazzeo to resign as the only way to straighten out the department and overcome low morale.
"The chief will never have the confidence or the backing of the majority of the men," said officer Charles McMonagle, vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Washington Lodge 17. "At this point, the city Police Department needs a change. Any change would be better than what we have right now."
Mitman said Mazzeo will remain the chief, for now.
"I'm looking at the long-range view of what's good for Easton, not what's good for Phil Mitman or for Steve Mazzeo," Mitman said. "Everything gets looked at, including the chief and every other director in the city administration."
Mitman appointed Mazzeo as chief the day after being sworn in as mayor in January 2004 with a promise to turn around a department besieged by police brutality lawsuits.
The suits started stinging taxpayers two years ago, when attorney John P. Karoly began showing a pattern of continuing disciplinary problems and a lack of policies and procedures.
Mitman's answer to the suits is to get accreditation through the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, which issued a 127-page report two weeks ago describing the department as "an agency in crisis."
Spang's job will be to lead the accreditation process. He helped organize the Colonial Regional Police Department in 1995 and retired as chief at the end of 2002. He previously was a state police major.
Mazzeo, a 26-year veteran of the department, declined to comment on the elimination of the SWAT team, but said he welcomed Spang's assistance.
"We started the accreditation process [ourselves], and we discovered it was impossible to do this on a part-time basis and implement changes," Mazzeo said. "We have progressed, but we have not progressed enough to meet our goals and needs. I think [Spang] is an excellent choice."
Police union officials also welcomed Spang. However, they believe eliminating the SWAT team will further damage morale and could endanger officers and civilians, leading to more suits.
FOP President Dominick Marraccini, a SWAT team member, said Mitman used the SWAT team for post-election publicity by attending drug raids and dressing as a team member last Halloween.
Marraccini said Mazzeo publicly commended the SWAT team in a television interview for its textbook response in capturing a barricaded suspect.
Only one of the three consultants' reports issued this month on the Police Department recommended elimination of the 10-member SWAT team, but all three said the city could function without it by relying on the state police.
McMonagle said that would be a mistake.
"You have a foreign entity coming in and working with another entity. These entities don't train together. They don't know each other's moves," McMonagle said. "Inevitably, there's an increase for something tragic happening."
The city and its insurance company have paid nearly
$5 million to settle lawsuits against the department in the last three years. None involved the SWAT team, but one suit still pending alleges the team used excessive force when it shot and wounded South Side resident Michael Hogan.
Karoly's most recent suit against the city ended in a
$2.5 million settlement, and city officials expect he'll win several million dollars on behalf of officer Sollman's widow and children.
Sollman was fatally shot in the police station March 25 with another SWAT team officer's handgun. City officials have said the shooting was an accident, but state investigators have launched a grand jury investigation that was expanded last week to include a break-in this month at the chief's office.
McMonagle said Sollman's shooting was a weapons safety issue, not a SWAT team issue.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun