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Jim Kenyon: Police keep the public in the dark, even about the simple things

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 9/26/2020 9:43:18 PM
Modified: 9/26/2020 9:43:16 PM

The Hanover Police Department is advertising for a new second-in-command, which begs the question: What happened to the guy who previously held the job?

Capt. Mark Bodanza, who was hired in June 2017, left his $111,000-a-year position on Sept. 1. His resignation letter, dated the day before his exit, didn’t give a reason.

Why is the departure of a Hanover police officer newsworthy?

Police are not like most public servants. Their arrest powers allow them to take away a person’s freedom at just about any time they see fit. Until a few months ago, police use of deadly force often went unchallenged in this country.

The need for transparency in police matters — big and small — has surged to the forefront.

The public has a right to know why Hanover’s second-highest ranked police officer is on the town payroll one day and gone the next with no explanation given.

For several months, it’s been rumored in Upper Valley law enforcement circles that Bodanza was placed on paid administrative leave earlier this year. Typically, officers are sidelined but continue to collect a paycheck during internal investigations into alleged misconduct or other wrongdoing.

After calling Bodanza’s office a few times and having no one pick up, I thought the rumor was worth checking out.

Was Bodanza getting paid more than $1,900 a week to stay at home? And if so, how long had it been going on?

Under New Hampshire’s right-to-know law, I figured answers to a couple of straightforward questions would be fairly easy to come by.

On July 28, I filed a public records request with Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis. On Aug. 19, I heard back.

In a two-page letter, Dennis wrote that he had determined the public didn’t have a right to know whether Bodanza was on paid administrative leave. It was “confidential information and part of a personnel file and disclosure of such records would constitute an invasion of privacy.”

Two weeks later, the 42-year-old Bodanza was gone.

After getting a copy of Bodanza’s resignation letter from Hanover police, I told Gilles Bissonnette, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, about the difficulty I’d had accessing basic public employee information.

It’s “problematic when a police department goes so far as to even refuse to tell the public when an employee has been placed on leave,” Bissonnette wrote in an email. “It should go without saying that the public has a right to know when an employee has been suspended but is still being paid with taxpayer dollars.”

What makes Dennis’ penchant for secrecy even more troubling is the influence that he wields in the state’s law enforcement community.

Dennis, who came to Hanover in 2014 from Reid-sville, N.C., is president of New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. This summer, he served on Gov. Chris Sununu’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency, which was convened in response to the national outcry for more public scrutiny of police.

But on transparency issues, Dennis is hardly leading by example.

I get why the chief might want to keep the public in the dark. He hand-picked Bodanza to be his No. 2.

Bodanza had a strong resume. Before coming to Hanover, he worked for nine years at the New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council, which among other things prepares and certifies recruits for careers in law enforcement. He also spent nine years as a police officer in Weare, N.H.

When Bodanza agreed to come to Hanover, he received a $5,000 “sign-on” bonus, which due to a shortage of state-certified cops has become a recruiting tool in New Hampshire.

In June, Bodanza received a $2,000 “incentive” raise for completing his master’s degree. He had earned a master of religious education from West Coast Baptist College in Lancaster, Calif., according to the personnel records that Dennis was willing to release. (Bodanza is a pastor at Tri-State Bible Baptist Church in Chesterfield, N.H.)

I wanted to talk with Bodanza about his sudden departure. I’d heard that he has an organic farm in Hillsborough, N.H.

After leaving a couple of voicemail messages, I heard back from Bodanza on Friday afternoon. He was more forthright than his former boss.

Bodanza said he’d been on paid administrative leave since January due to an internal investigation. “I would refute any accusations of wrongdoing,” he told me. “It’s unfortunate, but at this point, I just can’t say more.”

Why’s that?

Bodanza said he has an attorney and is considering legal action against the town.

Hanover isn’t the only Upper Valley community where cops are facing internal investigations without the public knowing anything about what’s behind them.

In response to public records requests, Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello confirmed in July that Lt. Richard Smolenski and senior officer Paul Gifford were on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

Smolenski, who is a salaried employee, earns $97,700 annually. Gifford’s hourly wage is $32.60, which by my math comes to about $67,000 a year.

The officers have been out since May 26.

Mello has repeatedly declined to say why the officers were being investigated. The ACLU’s Bissonnette wasn’t surprised.

Cops don’t like to talk about misconduct, or even the hint of it, within their ranks. In an email, Bissonnette wrote “police departments’ insistence on secrecy obstructs public trust and defies the role of police as public servants whose foremost responsibility is to the public.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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