The four full-time officers of the Pittsfield Police Department took a unanimous vote of no confidence in their chief last week, citing long simmering conflicts that have eroded their faith in his leadership, according to a union representative.
The March 27 vote is essentially a formal rebuke of Chief Harold “Pete” Bickmore and calls for his dismissal, according to a statement from the Maine Association of Police, the bargaining agent for the officers’ union, the Pittsfield Police Association.
The union cited 16 examples, some of which have been disputed or were the subject of previous or ongoing investigations, that show how the chief’s “inappropriate conduct and performance” led to the deterioration of his relationship with his officers since he was hired in 2017. They range from disregarding their union to allegedly letting a civilian employee drive a police car.
The vote comes nearly five months after the town hired a Massachusetts consultant to investigate the chief’s performance in response to a list of complaints submitted by the union.
But the internal investigation into the chief, completed Nov. 5, found little evidence to support many of the union’s complaints and attributed the department’s “hostile atmosphere” to the officers who created a pact where “either the chief goes, or they leave.”
Dissatisfied with the investigation and critical of how it was conducted, the union felt compelled to take the “extraordinary” measure of last week’s vote and air their grievances publicly, it said.
The “proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back” was when the chief came to work while he was sick and awaiting test results to see if he had the coronavirus, said Paul Gaspar, executive director of the Maine Association of Police, the bargaining agent for the officers’ union. The chief tested negative.
“This was the tipping point after a year and a half or more of just numerous issues and reticence by the municipality to deal with it,” Gaspar said.
It is “extremely rare” for his organization to advocate for a vote of no confidence, he added, but the scope of problems warranted it. “Now we’re in an aberrant crisis mode [because of the coronavirus] when there is no better time to have full confidence in your employer and the people who are [leading] you,” he said.
The union also submitted a complaint to the Maine Labor Relations Board in January to determine whether the chief has violated labor laws — claims the town has denied. The board, which hears disputes between workers and their employers, issued a letter last week to say there was enough evidence in the initial complaint to move forward to a hearing, which has not been scheduled.
Neither the chief, the town manager, nor the town’s mayor learned about the March 27 vote of no confidence until the Bangor Daily News contacted them for comment on Thursday.
The union is “trying to embarrass the man because they couldn’t in the way they did so the first time” by prompting the internal investigation, said Bickmore’s attorney, John Richardson. He provided the BDN with a copy of the confidential report produced after the internal investigation into the chief.
Bickmore declined to comment.
After independently reaching out to the BDN, District Attorney Maeghan Maloney praised Bickmore and “how much he’s improved the department in Pittsfield.”
The Pittsfield police officers see things differently. Bickmore violated their union contract during the hiring process of a school resource officer and allegedly retaliated against two officers by pursuing disciplinary actions against them, according to the union’s complaint before the Maine Labor Relations Board.
The officers accused him of attempting to convince the union to switch to a new bargaining agent where a friend of his works — an allegation the investigator hired by the town dismissed — and trying to discuss a pending grievance outside the presence of their union representative.
Officers also asserted that Bickmore inappropriately joked around with his service weapon and publicly claimed he could “make an innocent person look guilty,” according to the internal investigation. The investigator reprimanded the chief for the former and didn’t make a definitive finding on the latter.
The union also described two instances where Bickmore allegedly mishandled two police matters, the first involving an impaired driver’s crash report and another where he used a scale from a nearby business to weigh seized marijuana. The investigator found some fault with the chief in both instances.
The internal investigation did not look into some of the officers’ claims, which the union said was concerning.
For instance, the union claimed the chief cornered the town manager “against a wall and poked his finger in her chest”; that he followed a young female cleaning lady around the station in a way that constituted harassment; and that he is frequently unavailable because he works 100 miles away as a part-time police officer in Scarborough.
The union also claimed he “regularly permitted” the department’s secretary, who was not a sworn officer, to drive a police cruiser — a “potentially dangerous situation” because the vehicles are outfitted with patrol rifles and contain computers with access to confidential information. This allegation didn’t arise in the internal investigation, though an officer raised it with the town manager, said Gaspar, with the Maine Association of Police.
Town Manager Kathryn Ruth declined to discuss the complaints in detail — including the allegations that involve her — or how the town would move forward, as many of the issues raised are personnel matters, she said.
However, “it’s unfortunate it’s gotten to this point,” she said, adding that the union and chief have avoided mediation as a way to address their issues. What’s more, the internal investigation into the chief last fall “didn’t help matters” because of the “differences of opinion” over its findings, she said.
Gaspar, with the Maine Association of Police, said the internal investigation didn’t result in “an accurate or complete portrayal of this very long version of events.”
In the town manager’s opinion, she said, “it muddied the waters more than it helped.” In the meantime, the ongoing “disagreements” will not prevent the police department from doing its job, Ruth said.
There is little disagreement, however, that the chief and his rank and file have suffered a poor relationship since Bickmore, an FBI veteran, was hired in October 2017. A precise timeline of the alleged interdepartmental conflicts in Pittsfield isn’t entirely clear, but the union’s complaint to the Maine Labor Relations Board and the town’s written response provide an outline.
Prior to Pittsfield, a town of around 4,000 in Somerset County, Bickmore was chief of the Ellsworth Police Department. He resigned after less than a year, shortly after the town manager reprimanded him for disclosing confidential personnel information about another police department employee to a resident.
The Pittsfield personnel investigation into Bickmore found the full-time members of the department were “cold and standoffish” toward their new chief from the beginning, disappointed that one of their own didn’t get the job. It described how officers criticized the chief to members of the public, which, among other behavior, was “counterproductive to working in unity or in improving the overall operation and morale within the agency.”
The investigation also credited Bickmore with improving the quality of the department’s written reports, which the district attorney’s office had previously complained about.
“Some officers defended their disparaging remarks about the chief to the public because of their belief that the public needs to know,” the investigator wrote.
Union officers countered that they were optimistic about Bickmore and never planned to undermine him.
The relationship “substantially deteriorated” during the summer of 2018, according to the complaint to the Maine Labor Relations Board. That’s when Bickmore hired a part-time officer to be a school resource officer instead of picking a full-time member of the force as the union’s collective bargaining agreement required.
The union grieved the matter with the Maine Board of Arbitration and Conciliation in August and won, resulting in a full-time officer being appointed to the job. But the appeals process dragged on to the following year and further soured the relationship, according to board documents.
“Use of the term ‘deterioration’ is inaccurate in that it suggests that the [Pittsfield Police] Association was supportive of Chief Bickmore at one point in time, which was not the case here,” the town wrote in response.
On January 24, 2019, two members of the department and their union representatives met with the town’s attorney and Ruth, the town manager, to discuss the school resource office matter and “a lengthy list of complaints and concerns regarding the conduct of the chief,” according to the board complaint.
The town took no formal action to address the officers’ concerns following that meeting, according to the union. It wasn’t until six months later in August, after the union’s attorney submitted their complaints again in writing, that the town hired Howard Consulting and Investigative Group, a Massachusetts firm, to investigate the chief, according to the labor relations board documents.
Meanwhile, the union claimed Bickmore retaliated against two officers for complaining about him by having them investigated by an outside police agency, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. In June, the agency conducted a disciplinary investigation into an allegation that Sergeant Tim Roussin pressured a civilian to drop a misconduct claim against Officer Gregory Sides, the documents state.
The sheriff’s office did not substantiate that Roussin tried to influence the civilian, but it did sustain accusations of “insubordination, competence and conduct unbecoming,” the union wrote in its complaint.
The sheriff’s office declined to investigate Sides.
The union also claimed Bickmore may have violated Maine labor laws by failing to provide the union with documents he gave to the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, which it is entitled to under statute. The union still hasn’t received the documents, according to the complaint.
The town denied that the chief had retaliated against his officers. The chief couldn’t have retaliated against Roussin because he wasn’t aware the sergeant had complained about him when he reached out to the sheriff’s office, the town responded. Further, the chief had tried, unsuccessfully, to address the sergeant’s “performance concerns” before getting an outside agency’s assistance in the disciplinary matter — something the internal investigation into Bickmore said is typical for police chiefs to do.
And the chief never made a “formal request” to investigate Sides; he only spoke to a sheriff’s lieutenant about the officer, the record states.
However, nearly six months later, in late December, officer Sides learned he was under investigation by another outside agency, the Skowhegan Police Department, for the same four allegations that the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office had declined to look into, the union alleged.
The new investigation was another act of punitive retaliation, the union claimed. It also happened too long after the alleged misconduct was reported, thereby violating the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
In an interview, Gaspar said it appeared Bickmore was seeking “another bite at the apple” to discipline Sides. The town has denied the allegations.
Bickmore, meanwhile, has also accused the officers of retaliation. Richardson, his attorney, said the officers complained to the Maine Labor Relations Board and took the vote of no confidence because they were dissatisfied with the outcome of the town’s internal probe.
“This is nothing more than retaliation,” Richardson, the lawyer, said. “Your headline ought to be ‘Members file no confidence in response to a scathing, independent investigation that was critical of members of the department.’”
He described the ordeal as “a little food fight within the town of Pittsfield.”
As for the union’s concern about the coronavirus, Richardson said the chief had “the sniffles,” not symptoms of the virus, and the officers “made a big deal” out of it.
Bickmore only agreed to get tested after multiple officials urged him to, according to a March 20 letter that Officer Jeff Vanadestine sent to the Pittsfield town manager on behalf of the union.
While he was awaiting the result, Bickmore disregarded orders to isolate himself and came into the office where he interacted with his staff, the letter said.
The chief tested negative, Richardson said, as he had believed he would all along.