Sussex County Delaware

Fenwick Police Chief
Suspended 2nd Time

 
Fenwick Island

Battle Intensifies Between
Chief, F.I. Town Council

By KERIN MAGILL
SC Online Editor

"Crime Scene" tape still seals files and storage areas at the Fenwick Island Police Department, and Police Chief George H. Dickerson Jr. is still gone. Sgt. Michael Bruette, until Monday the third-highest ranking officer in the department, is still in charge.

Little else is known about the fate of Dickerson, who was first suspended Wednesday, Aug. 21 after he told two council members he wanted to tape a meeting with them. Dickerson was reinstated the following day, but left the office before his shift was over after being suspended for a second time in five days.

Fenwick Island Town Council met in executive session on Saturday, Aug. 24, to discuss personnel issues and potential litigation, but council members and Town Solicitor Tempe Steen have refused to discuss the contents of that meeting.

Mayor Peg Baunchalk declined to comment further on the situation, other than to read a prepared statement which also said "All police services will continue to be provided as normal."

Dickerson said on Monday, Aug. 26, 2002, that he had been asked to attend a meeting last week with council members Edward "Buzz" Henifin -- the town's police commissioner -- and Richard Griffin.

Dickerson said due to legal concerns he couldn't discuss what the meeting was to be about.

Dickerson's relationship with the council has been contentious since he filed a Freedom of Information complaint against the council last spring regarding several closed meetings about a manpower shortage in the police department.

Speaking from his Milton home, Dickerson said he wanted to tape the meeting because he was advised to by his attorney and "because of the way they like to spin stuff and change things."

Dickerson said he was told by the two council members his action was "insubordinate" and that he was ordered by Henifin to return to his office and give Henifin all keys and codes to the police department, including those to the police evidence locker and departmental files.

Before he left, Dickerson said, he told Henifin and Griffin he would not be held accountable for the materials while they were out of police department custody.

Dickerson said he was told to call the town hall at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22. When he did that, he said he was told he had been reinstated.

When he returned to town hall, Dickerson said, he proceeded to seal all storage areas with "crime scene" tape because he felt the integrity of the department's materials and evidence had been compromised. He said items in the evidence storage area included guns and drugs seized as part of criminal investigations.

The tape remained as of Tuesday afternoon, according to a town resident who stopped in at town hall.

Upon Dickerson's return on Thursday, he said, Henifin presented a letter stating that he had not tampered with any of the evidence or other materials, asking Dickerson to sign it and Dickerson's assistant, Sherry Jordan, to notarize it. Dickerson said he refused to do so. He said he left the office after that.

Dickerson also said he took a personal day Friday and was in his office "for a short time" on Monday, but would not comment further on his employment status. Bruette said he took over command of the department at 10 a.m. Monday.

Henifin could not be reached for comment. Griffin, who is the town's deputy police commissioner, quoted the same prepared statement as Baunchalk. The statement has also been posted at the town hall, according to Griffin. "It's the town's policy not to comment on personnel issues," Griffin said.

Dickerson has asked Attorney General M. Jane Brady to investigate Henifin and Griffin's actions regarding the police files and storage areas.

Chief Deputy Ferris Wharton said that while he couldn't comment specifically on Dickerson's request, in general any concerns about security of evidence "have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis" as the cases in which the evidence is involved come to court.

Wharton said "there would have to be significant evidence of or suggestion of tampering" before there would be a concern.

It was also not clear whether Henifin and Griffin had the power to suspend Dickerson on their own. Under the Police section of the Fenwick Island Town Charter, it says, "The police shall be subject to the direction of the Council and may be removed by the Council at any time."

The town council held a closed meeting on Saturday, Aug. 24, with "personnel and potential litigation" listed on the agenda for discussion. A paragraph added to the bottom of the notice read "Meeting is called due to pressing nature of personnel problems and to obtain a quorum."

Baunchalk said all council members were present except Henifin. Town attorney Tempe Steen said the council left the closed meeting and voted in open session on a matter discussed during the closed meeting. Steen said she believed the vote was unanimous, but wouldn't elaborate.

Dickerson joined the Fenwick Island Police Department in 1993. He began his law enforcement career as a summer officer in Rehoboth Beach. Before coming to Fenwick Island, he was a member of the Milford Police Department. He was named the Delaware League of Local Government's Municipal Police Chief of the Year Award in 1999, and had been the chairman of the Delaware Police Chiefs' Council until he was forced to step down because of his department's manpower shortage.

In January, three of the town's six police officers resigned, leaving Dickerson, Bruette and the department's second-in-command, Major William Manning. Since then, the department has hired one officer and is waiting for two recruits to complete the Delaware State Police Academy.

Like Dickerson, Manning has been a vocal opponent of the council's actions since January. At a June town council meeting, he railed against council members who he felt had made disparaging comments about him. In April, Dickerson wrote a memo to Baunchalk citing what he felt was an "oppressive environment."

"Since Feb. 1, open lines of communication have deteriorated to where you and Commissioner Henifin will not even come in and speak to me," Manning wrote in the memo. "Further, I have become inundated with memorandums and deadlines that are impossible to meet.

"I feel the real agenda is to create such a hostile work environment so as to force me to resign or document my noncompliance with unrealistic deadlines," the memo stated.


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