locally owned since 1854

Suspension of Middletown police officer warranted for disobeying an order: Editorial

Posted 12/20/17

The suspension of Middletown Police Officer Mark Hovan is not about religion. It’s about obeying orders.

As a 20-year veteran of the department who served briefly as chief, Hovan should know …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Suspension of Middletown police officer warranted for disobeying an order: Editorial

Posted

The suspension of Middletown Police Officer Mark Hovan is not about religion. It’s about obeying orders.

As a 20-year veteran of the department who served briefly as chief, Hovan should know that.

Chief George Mouchette recently suspended Hovan after Hovan attended church on duty, and after Mouchette gave him a direct order not to do so.

Religion is — rightfully — very important in many people’s lives. We are in no way trying to downplay that, or the role it plays in Hovan’s life. But there is a time for all things, including attending church.

Substitute “went shopping” or “went to his son’s baseball game” for “attended church,” and this suspension wouldn’t be causing such an uproar.

The expectation that Mouchette is trying to establish is that officers will not undertake personal business during their shift. The activity shouldn’t matter.

Hovan told the Press & Journal that his constitutional right to practice freedom of religion was being “infringed upon” by the chief, and that “they made no accommodation at all for me.”

It is unclear to us what accommodation was requested. We are not privy to all the communication between the two.

Hovan, who wears a small cross on his uniform, described himself as a devout Catholic who said he found it necessary to attend church on duty on occasion so that he would not miss any holy days of obligation.

Technically, every Sunday of the year is a holy day of obligation. But there are six other days as well. Jan. 1 is the Feast of Mary, the Mother of God; 40 days after Easter Sunday is Ascension Thursday; Aug. 15 is the assumption of Mary into heaven; Nov. 1 is All Saints Day; Dec. 8 is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception; and Dec. 25 is Christmas.

The day on which Hovan attended church and for which he was suspended was Aug. 15 — a Tuesday this year.

This disagreement dates back to January, when Mouchette, a former New York City police detective, came on as interim chief.

He eventually was named the permanent chief, in August. On Jan. 8, Hovan was told not to attend church on duty. He was given a letter that stated he was to “never conduct personal business on Middletown Police Department time,” according to Hovan.

“We owe a duty to the citizens of Middletown to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money, and we cannot authorize our officers to attend to personal matters while on duty,” Mouchette said in a statement released to the Press & Journal. “We need our officers to be patrolling and performing their police duties while on the clock.”

Hovan then attended church Aug. 15.

Hovan said he always had his radio with him while attending church on duty, and he told the Press & Journal that he had “never” missed a call because of attending.

Mouchette told the Press & Journal that Hovan had previously been advised that if his spiritual obligations “required” he attend church while on duty, he could request “appropriate time off to attend,” but he never made such a request.

Hovan’s devout Catholicism is something to be commended. Being a man of God can be very important in his line of work.

Hovan has also served under many chiefs in the last five years. It’s possible others did not have a problem with him attending church on duty. But if he was warned not to attend, then he should not have attended.

We hope that Mouchette is applying this standard to all the officers as well, no matter what the personal activities being carried out on duty. If there is any doubt that he is serious about enforcing it, this suspension should answer the question.

We hope that this clash can be worked out without much more controversy. If Hovan needs some schedule adjustment to accommodate his religious beliefs, there must be some scheduling changes that can be made, at least for the holy days of obligation. There is a possibility as well that Hovan will appeal the suspension, either to the Civil Service Commission or via a grievance with the police association.

Mixing religion and law enforcement can be a challenge. Hovan shouldn’t have attended church when he was told not to do so. But where do we go from here?