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Webster police chief takes town to court

  • Several dozen people turned out for a meet and greet event with Webster’s new police chief, Ben Liberatore, Thursday. Monitor file



Monitor staff
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Webster police chief is suing the town, arguing selectmen tried to force him to resign by placing him on administrative leave without pay and preventing him from taking a physical fitness test needed to become a New Hampshire police officer.

Chief Benedict Liberatore was placed on leave on Sept. 27 to give him time to complete the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training certification, according to the select board. The test is supposed to be completed within six months of signing a contract; Liberatore had signed his contract with the town 11 months earlier, on Oct. 17, 2016. He was given two extensions, but did not complete the test by Sept. 1.

However, Liberatore’s attorney, Elizabeth Olcott, said in Merrimack County Superior Court on Friday and Monday that by placing the chief on administrative leave, the town has gone back on an agreement to allow the chief more time to take the test. By preventing him from being able to take the test, the town has effectively terminated him. She is arguing that Liberatore should be employed as a police administrator in the town until he is able to take and pass the test and is entitled to back pay.

Liberatore’s time with the town has been rocky. During a July select board meeting, Liberatore read a statement saying the board had been “micromanaging, scrutinizing, singling out and trying to run the police department,” since his first day on the job. He complained he had endured “repeated harassment, defamation of character,” that had caused a “hostile work environment” that made it impossible for him to perform his duties.

Olcott said the chief was scheduled to take the fitness test April 17, but the select board asked for an extension, which would allow the chief to recover from knee surgery and to age into a different test bracket.

Liberatore was then supposed to take his rescheduled test Aug. 14, but couldn’t because of high blood pressure, Olcott said. The New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council wrote to the select board on Aug. 31 that the chief’s probationary status would end on Sept. 26, and that the select board needed to request an extension by Sept. 13.

According to Olcott, the select board informed Liberatore on Sept. 11 that “an extension is unlikely to be forthcoming.”

All of this is in bad faith, Olcott argued, because the select board indicated to Liberatore in an email on Oct. 19, 2016, that the town’s counsel would be asked to make an extension of up to two years, which Liberatore relied upon to continue in his position. Furthermore, placing him on administrative leave prevents Liberatore from taking the physical fitness test, because only the hiring body can request a test be scheduled for a police officer, Olcott said. Liberatore now has until Dec. 31 to take the test, she said.

Town attorney Barton Mayer rebutted that the town was simply enforcing its contract and that Liberatore violated a number of town policies, including not establishing residence within Webster, not being certified and not following a work-hours policy that instructs the town’s police chiefs to schedule only one on-duty officer at a time in order to maximize coverage. These policies are long-standing, Mayer argued, and the chief should have been aware of them during his tenure.

He also said the town made several attempts to let Liberatore know he was violating said policies through letters. Olcott characterized those letters as threats of termination.

Mayer also said employing someone as a police chief who is not certified to be an officer in the state is a liability the town should not be forced to bear. He noted Liberatore, a former Connecticut state police officer, is also not certified in New Hampshire state law, which is a second test that Liberatore would have to take after the physical fitness test.

Merrimack County Superior Court Judge John Kissinger gave both parties until Friday to file any additional arguments.

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)