Jul 23, 2015 5:55 PM
NEW DURHAM - Chief of Police Shawn Bernier has been terminated immediately following a closed-door decision by the New Durham select board.
The decision, according to Chair David Bickford, followed alleged ethics violations - including Bernier's reported misuse of a town police vehicle to transport his wife and son.
“He’s been running around with his family in the cruiser, and it’s a concern to people," Bickford told NH1 News. "We have an ethics policy that the cruiser is not to be used for anything but town business. And I know that the Chief has told us repeatedly that he will not transport people. It's not a taxi. So, somebody has to report these things."
However, dozens of protesters stood outside town hall Thursday, disputing Bickford's allegations of ethical violations.
“Do the right thing today!" shouted Town Moderator Cecile Chase to Selectman Greg Anthes as he walked inside.
Anthes, Bickford and Selectman David Swenson were continuing a non-public discussion regarding the employment of Chief Bernier.
As the meeting opened publicly at 10 a.m., the board invited Bernier to join them for a behind-closed-doors meeting. Bernier told the board he didn't want the meeting to be private, citing state statute RSA 91-A, which he believed provided him the right to have his employment discussed publicly.
"I am telling you that I am not interested," said Chairman Bickford, who denied Bernier's request.
While more than a dozen townspeople called on the board to stay in public session, all three members stood up and walked upstairs and met without the chief, who had to leave for a service call.
Moments later, a request was made by a selectman to have another police officer respond for a "threat" that was made among the selectmen.
Two officers spoke with the board inside the conference room where the executive session meeting was being held for about 25 minutes.
Selectman Greg Anthes told NH1 News that the reasoning behind the police response to the public building was not a matter that needed to be disclosed.
“Oh that was another issue," Anthes said. "No, no ... everything’s fine.”
After about an hour in the non-public session, the board returned to the public meeting room and revealed their decision.
"Reggie will be in charge of the police department," Chairman Bickford announced, referring to a sergeant who would be promoted due to the vote. "And that concludes our work here."
But townspeople weren't satisfied.
They shouted at the board, demanding further explanation of Bernier's apparent termination.
"You work for us!" one woman said. "This is ridiculous!" said another.
"Quiet!," Chairman Bickford shouted back. "Our meeting is concluded. Do you hear me? We cannot – listen! We cannot have a meeting now.”
The board then abruptly walked out to their cars, as town protesters surrounded them with signs that read "We Support Chief Bernier".
Bernier's wife, Kristyn, whom Bernier is accused of driving in his town police cruiser for non-police business, was consoled by friends and family.
A group proceeded to walk next door to the town's police department, where Bernier was seen returning in his cruiser from his last service call.
"How can anyone do what you’re doing to him in a faithful conscience?" a man shouted at Selectman Anthes, who unsuccessfully attempted to shake hands with Bernier.
After Anthes left, a crowd still surrounded the chief with support, as Town Administrator Jeremy Bourgeois walked over and handed Bernier his termination letter, which ordered him to turn in all of his town property by the end of business on Thursday.
The letter - which did not list a cause for Bernier's dismissal - was only signed by selectmen Anthes and Bickford.
Selectman Swenson said he was opposed to terminating Bernier from the beginning.
“I think this is incorrect action from the town," Swenson said.
Swenson also requested Bickford recuse himself from voting on Bernier's employment, citing a possible conflict of interest involving multiple arrests of Bickford's son, Aaron, who has a 3-page criminal record.
Bickford did not accept Swenson's request.
Following his receipt of the letter, the unsettled chief said he was unsure how to move forward, and that he would be speaking with an attorney in the afternoon.
"There’s illegal activities going in the New Durham town hall," Bernier said, as citizens thanked him for more than 20 years as a public servant on the town's police force.
Supporters said he never once received a complaint, other than those filed by Bickford.
“This is a good town," the now former chief said. "It’s killing me. It really is.”
Statement from Kristyn Bernier, former Chief Shawn Bernier's wife:
"To the residents of New Durham, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for the amazing support you have given Chief Shawn Bernier, and for rallying such an amazing grass roots effort to take back this town. We are blown away and so humbled. The support from the community has truly overwhemed us, and it has made this easier knowing we are not alone. This job takes the life out of you seeing the horrible things people do to each other and the tragedies day in and day out, but the public support every single day makes it worth it and makes the job so much easier. To see community members, who all have different perspectives come to stand together for a common cause is truly amazing. To stand for our cause, people we have never even met - there are no words to describe the feeling of appreciation. After 21 years of protecting the public, for residents to step up to protect Shawn and fight for him in this way is mind blowing. To have people taking time off from work and reaching out left us speechless. We owe so many our gratitude, and ironically, in all of this mess, we are watching this community finally pulling together and bonding in a way we have needed to bond to support each other and be the community we love to live in and serve in. Our hearts are full. It is our hope that this same community cohesion will continue for anyone in this community who needs to be uplifted for any reason, be it job loss, medical issue, family tragedy or need. This is what makes New Durham special, special people reaching out, helping each other and making this a wonderful place to live. Thank you for the love, support, and promises to stand by us as this plays out. Know that if you need us, we are right here for all of you who have been there for us. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."
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