Board has regrets, but upholds Pickering firing

HAMPTON — The Board of Selectmen in a three to two vote, upheld the decision of Police Chief William Wrenn and Town Manager James Barrington in the discharge of former Patrolman Aaron Pickering.  Following a February 3 hearing that Aaron Pickering had requested, the Board took several days to consider and discuss the testimony presented by the attorneys and the principle players in the much publicized discharge of the former DARE officer.

They wrote a letter to Pickering stating that they had considered the four charges presented by the Chief to the Town Manager (which Barrington upheld) in a memo recommending disciplinary action.  They wrote:

“The Board finds as follows: That with deep regret for past services rendered, and for the personal grief our actions will cause you, we uphold the decision of Town Manager Barrington in his approval of the recommendations of the Chief of the Hampton Police Department – specifically Charges #3 and #4 only, UNTRUTHFULLNESS, INSUBORDINATION – and terminate your services as a law enforcement officer for the Town of Hampton, New Hampshire.”

The letter was signed by Mary-Louise Woolsey, Chairman for the Board of Selectmen.

The fourth charge against the officer was “conducting an unauthorized investigation.”  While the charge was not considered in the firing it was an issue that was a major part of Pickering’s undoing.  On the evening when Pickering was found prowling on private property, he told an investigating officer that he was on a continuing investigation of possible child abuse.

In his sworn testimony at four hearings, Pickering told varying stories of why he was at the house on Locke Road in Hampton.  He vacillated betwen saying that he was trying to locate an address so that he might give or loan a juvenile a piece of equipment to help him play guitar, and saying that he was there investigating. Pickering never made it clear what he was doing there.  Even without the fourth charge, he admitted lying to Chief Wrenn regarding the number of alcoholic beverages he had consumed that night.

There has been varying reaction to the Selectman’s ruling.  Many of Pickering’s supporters (and he had many) claimed that because of his unblemished record of service and because he helped innumerable young people as a DARE officer and volunteer coach, he should be punished but that his mistakes did not warrant firing

The other side of the opinion was that the Chief, the Town Manager and the Selectmen did the only thing they could do.  They upheld the integrity of the Police Department and of the Town.  That they had protected the town against future legal action or embarrassment over an officer who had not only made a mistake, but had compromised himself and his fellow officers by lying.  In just about everyone’s opinion, the incident was one that should never have happened.

Atlantic News 13 February 1997

Entire town hears case of Pickering vs. Police Dept.

HAMPTON — About 40 supporters of the fired police officer Aaron Pickering stood in the raw spitting rain to gather outside of the town office Monday night carrying signs of  “We Support Aaron,” as the Board of Selectmen prepared to hear the trial of the discharged DARE officer who had been fired for intoxication and conducting an unauthorized investigation and lying.

Selectmen Chairman Mary-Louise Woolsey had warned that there would be no rants in the small Selectman’s office, assigning seats to the persons who would testify, the police, and news media.  “Watch channel 58,” she urged.

Outside, Pickering’s cousin Karen Brady and his brother, a fellow Police Officer said they felt a supportive crowd would have influence on the Board’s decision to support or reverse the decision of Police Chief William Wrenn and the agreement of Town Manager James Barrington to discharge the officer.

The cast of characters was many, producing a long hearing that began 6 p.m. Monday and ended 1 a.m. Tuesday.  Joseph McKittrick [represented] Pickering and the Patrolman’s Association.

A stoic line of union officers led by Tom Linane, and the Association President, sat by while the Police Chief and his command staff were ready to testify before the Board of Hampton Selectmen.  Police Officer Jamie Sullivan was the Sergeant at Arms assigned to keep order aided by Captain Victor DeMarco who had played a role in the investigation and subsequent firing of former officer Aaron Pickering.

What happened?  Internal Affairs Officer Lieutenant Crott pointed out that on the afternoon of Sunday, November 17, 1996, then Officer Aaron Pickering had gone to the home of fellow officer Jim Patton where he had a “couple of beers” and watched the Patriots football game.  Following the game, he picked up his father and they went to a Seabrook restaurant/bar where they had dinner, two beers with dinner and two after.  They then went to Hampton Beach where they went into a night club and Pickering had two more beers.  Leaving there they made one more stop where Pickering had admitted to having two “Jack Daniels” and water (or on the rocks?).

According to sworn testimony, Pickering took his father home and headed for his own home.  For some reason that no one can explain, Pickering found himself on Locke Road where he decided to look for the home of a Hampton Academy Junior High youth who he had met through the DARE program.  Pickering testified that he went there to find out the address of the youth so that he could loan him an appliance that would help him in his hobby of playing guitar.  Pickering parked his truck around 9:00 p.m. between the house of Frank Shedd and the house next door so he could go and look at the street number on the house.  This is when the trouble really began.

Mr. Shedd and his son drove in the driveway as Pickering stood in the shadows hoping not to be seen.  Shedd who had been robbed shortly after moving into the home did see Pickering in the headlights of his truck and as he approached, Pickering ran around the back of the house and into the woods.  Mr Shedd called to the “intruder” who finally came out of the woods identifying himself as Aaron Pickering and tried to calm the irate Frank Shedd.  One of Shedd’s sons called the police and Officer Larry Barrett arrived and attempted to calm the argry Mr. Shedd.

When the report was made to Sgt. Maloney, the duty Seargent, Captain DeMarco was informed of the incident and Chief Wrenn was called at home.  There ensued four hearings, an internal affairs investigation, a disciplinary hearing with the Chief, a re-hearing requested by Pickering and his council, and the hearing before the Board of Selectmen.  Chief Wrenn and lawyer Dunn presented sworn statements by Pickering in which he told a different story each time.

Even in the Monday Board hearing, Pickering gave a different account of the amount of alcohol he had consumed that day and night, and could not explain why he was on the Shedd’s property.  He had said or implied that he was following an investigation of alleged child abuse.  He was not, according to police officers.

The attorney for Pickering tried valiantly to discredit the Internal Affairs investigation and the Chief, implying that the Chief was “after” Pickering because of his union activities and his drafting of a questionnaire that was meant to discredit Chief Wrenn.  While attorney Dunn presented report after report of sworn testimony, McKittrick spent his rebuttal trying to discredit the Chief and his command staff.

Chief Wrenn presented a supreme court decision that upheld the firing of officers who do not tell the truth, while McKittrick, without naming the case, said that the Supreme Court allowed police officers to “say whatever they wanted, even lie.”

Board Chairman Mary-Louise Woolsley asked both lawyers to provide the case information to substantiate what they had said.  She asked some hard questions of Pickering such as “What is your word’s worth?” and she held up evidence to a squirming Pickering who could only say that he was a good person and that his actions of that night were not typical of him, a person who had never been in trouble before.

The Selectmen will take the matter under advisement and either support or reverse the Town Manager and the Police Chief in the decision to fire Pickering.  Chairman Woolsley said that he decision of the Board will be made public sometime today (Thursday) and that during the consideration period, there will be no further comment on the matter.

Atlantic News 6 February 1997

It’s not about Aaron Pickering. It’s about the town integrity.

Make no mistake, everyone deserves a fair hearing and rights that are given him or her under the law of the land or under the law of common decency.  Aaron Pickering has had his hearing(s).  He has had a hearing with the Internal Affairs office in the Police Department, he has had one with the Chief of Police and one with the Town Manager.   Now he wants one in public.  The decision was made that he was outside a private home trying not to be seen following an evening of consuming eight alcoholic beverages in several different bars.  When confronted by the police, who were called by the homeowner, he either told them or allowed them to believe that he was on an assignment.  He was not.

When Pickering was interviewed by Hampton Police Chief William Wrenn, he allgedly lied about how many drinks that he had consumed and told conflicting stories about why he was outside the private home.  On January 13, and as a result of a thorough investigation, Chief Wrenn discharged Pickering.  Both the former officer’s friends, and the patrolman’s association are chagrined at his firing.  There has been much public support for Pickering because he has had a clean record during his tenure as a police officer.  He also is a highly thought of volunteer coach at the high school.  The Police Chief is well aware of Pickering’s record and says he has taken it into account.  His lawyer has allegedly said that he (Pickering) lied about his drinking because he was embarrassed.  Come on, Counselor, what would you say about that excuse if you were on the other side of the table?

Now, let’s look at this scenario. You (yes, you) are the defendant in a case before a court of law.  A police officer testifies that you are innocent because of a set of circumstances that he or she witnessed and swears it to be true.  Now under cross examination, the prosecutor gets the officer to waver on the sworn testimony.  That particular situation frequently happens as we are aware, but now, YOU are the defendant and the witness testifying for YOU, wavers in the testimony and is known to have a record of being accused (and/or admitting) of lying in an internal investigation conducted by his department.  What do you think the prosecutor is going to do with YOUR witness.  Of course, completely discredit the testimony and the witness.

This column is not about Aaron Pickering who has had no previous charges, it is about the integrity of a town and its department managers.  A police chief cannot have the dishonesty of an officer cause the integrity of the entire department to be compromised.  The Town Manager must agree when the evidence is presented, to protect the integrity of the town and prevent liability beyond the everyday situations that are faced in any municipality.  All would be subject to severe criticism if that were not done.

There have been alleged instances of other officers not being truthful in their responses to investigations; and supporters of Pickering say that others have gone unpunished.  That may be true, but each case has to stand on its own and not be judged by what has happened under past administrations or department heads.

The Town of Hampton will soon be voting to seat two Selectmen.  Those who have announced the intent to run all say that the town department heads should not be micro-managed and that they should be allowed to run their departments as they see fit.  If they do not, they should be dealt with by their boss, the Town Manager.  The candidates, to a person, say that the Town Manager should be allowed to manage.  This seems to be the way this matter has been handled, and yes, former Officer Pickering can and did request a public hearing, but lets hope that the Board of Selectmen does not try to take over the decision made by a competent police chief and a new Town Manager who is emerging as a very competent manager and one who has a great deal of vision.

Atlantic News 30 January 1997

Town Manager comments on Pickering case

HAMPTON — According to the Town Manager James Barringon, fired police officer Aaron Pickering has asked for and will receive a public hearing on the matter of his discharge February 3, at 6:00 p.m. in the town office Selectmen’s room.  The hearing will precede the regular Monday night Selectmen’s meeting.  The Town Manager said that the Police Patrolman’s Association has requested a larger venue, but that Chariman Mary-Louise Woolsey refused on the grounds that the hearing will be televised to residents on Cablevision channel 58.

Ms. Woolsey said that the ground rules for the meeting are being discussed, but Barrington assured that only those who are part of the testimony will be permitted to speak.

“This will be a hearing, not a popularity contest.” he said, stressing that Pickering’s supporters and/or accusers will not be allowed to stand up and tell their opinions of Pickering and of the case.

The former officer was fired January 13 following an Internal Affairs investigation by police and a hearing with Chief Wrenn. The decision to terminate him was upheld by the Town Manager after the facts were presented to him.  Following the public hearing, the Board of Selectmen may decide to take the matter under advisement or to uphold or to reverse the decision made by the Chief and the Town Manager.  If the matter is upheld, Pickering can have the union (Patrolmen’s Association) arbitrate the matter or take it into the courts.  Barrington says that the former officer has decided to use the arbitration process.

Atlantic News 30 January 1997

Board to hear Pickering appeal at next meeting

HAMPTON — At Monday’s meeting, Selectman Chairman Mary-Louise Woolsey laid out the rules that must be followed at the February 3 meeting when they (the Board) hear an appeal of Hampton Patrolmen’s Association of the January decision by Police Chief Wrenn and Town Manager Barrington to discharge Aaron Pickering.  She pointed out that only the Board can adjudicate the matter and that it will not be a “public hearing,” but the public will be admitted.  She said that because of the public interest in the matter and the size of the Selectmen’s room she would urge everyone to watch the 6:00 p.m. meeting on life TV, Hampton channel 58.

She said that the strict control would be enforced, no “out of the ordinary” clothes, limited in-out movement during the hearing and no questions to the board prior to the hearing.  “This will not be a popularity contest,” Ms. Woolsey stressed.  There will be no board decision on the issue that night (February 3) but a report will be made public prior to a 2:00 p.m. meeting of the Planning Board on February 11.

Atlantic News 30 January 1997

DARE officer discharged from force

HAMPTON — In a brief three-line letter, Town Manager James Barrington upheld Police Chief William Wrenn’s decision to discharge officer Aaron Pickering for cause.  Wrenn had decided to fire the former DARE officer over an incident where police had found Pickering at the home of a student, after he had been allegedly drinking.

According to Wrenn, the former officer had lied several times to the Chief, when explaining the matter.  Pickering’s lawyer says the firing will be appealed.

Atlantic News 16 January 1997

Welcome to the blog

DARE Officer Pickering and his story:

The following posts will recall the firing and appeals of Hampton, NH policeman Aaron Pickering.  All credit goes to Hampton reporter Tom Donaldson, a great man who chronicled the life of his town.

I welcome any residents to share their own thoughts and memories on this strange event.