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Middletown police policy: They investigate complaints against themselves

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/1/20

Citizen complaints against the Middletown Police Department are investigated by the department and not an outside agency such as Dauphin County or the state.

That’s a problem, says a borough …

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Middletown police policy: They investigate complaints against themselves

Posted

Citizen complaints against the Middletown Police Department are investigated by the department and not an outside agency such as Dauphin County or the state.

That’s a problem, says a borough resident who contends the department’s harassment is driving her to move out of Middletown.

What Quortnee Noon describes as a pattern of harassment against her by Middletown police led her to organize a protest march against racism that was held in the borough Saturday, June 13.

The march was also sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police has led to a worldwide movement regarding police activity.

Following a request for comment from the Press & Journal regarding the Middletown Police Department’s process for receiving and handling citizen complaints, interim Chief Sgt. Dennis Morris provided the Press & Journal with a copy of a department internal affairs policy that spells out the process.

Complaints are to be handled and investigated internally, with action to be taken by the chief of police depending on the outcome of the probe. Internal investigations are to be completed within 30 days, although that can be extended by the chief in cases of “extenuating circumstances.”

Just one paragraph in the policy directly addresses the handling of complaints by an outside agency:

“Nothing in this general order shall restrict the chief of police from turning over any criminal investigation to an outside independent law enforcement agency and maintaining the administrative investigation within the department.”

The policy contains no language as to under what circumstances an outside agency must be brought in to investigate.

Morris in the email elaborated on the department’s process for handling complaints, as follows:

“During times when complaints are made and they reach me I do speak with the complainant,” he wrote. “Commonly after we discuss the event and I explain police procedure, protocols, and directives under which the police operate almost all will have a better understanding of why things occurred the way they did. For a very small rare few who want to pursue it further, they are directed to meet with me and write a statement.”

“This statement is very important because it is an official document. I cannot even tell you the last time someone reduced their complaint to writing. I have conducted investigations without the statement and if warranted I took action.”

Matter of trust

In Noon’s view, based on her experiences, the department cannot be trusted to investigate itself.

“The county or the state needs to come in. Something is not right here. There’s just a long history of nonsense that has been allowed,” Noon told the Press & Journal on Monday. “A new process has to happen. What’s happening now is not working.”

Noon, who said her family has roots in Middletown, moved to the borough in 2017 and is in the process of moving elsewhere. She said the harassment by police started around April 2018.

Noon says Middletown police have followed her without reason and have come to her house at all hours of the night, among other actions she says police have taken against her without provocation. She made specific allegations during an interview with the Press & Journal that could not be immediately verified.

She said she never filed a complaint through the department through official channels, because she said that Morris was involved in the campaign of harassment.

“I knew that the proper protocol was already going to be biased, so I couldn’t go to him. I had to go to somebody above,” she said.

Last October, when Noon said the harassment was escalating, she began contacting agencies outside of the Middletown Police Department for assistance.

Frustrated over what she saw as a lack of response to her concerns, Noon did some research and found that when a woman made a complaint in August 2018 about allegedly being raped by Middletown Police Chief George Mouchette at the police station on East Emaus Street, the person the woman reached out to was Mayor James H. Curry III.

Curry turned the matter over to the Dauphin County district attorney’s office to investigate. On Aug. 21, 2018, the DA’s office filed charges against Mouchette of aggravated indecent assault without consent, criminal attempt-rape forcible compulsion, and unlawful restraint/serious bodily injury.

The charges against Mouchette are pending. He is scheduled for trial in Dauphin County Court on Aug. 17.

Mouchette is still a Middletown employee and still the police chief, on paper. However, he has been suspended without pay since the charges were filed. 

Curry appointed Morris interim chief the same day Mouchette was charged. Borough council ratified the appointment shortly after, and Morris has continued to lead the department as interim chief ever since.

Complaints in writing

Noon said Curry called her back “within minutes” of her reaching out to him.

After hearing Noon describe the allegations, she said the mayor told her he would need everything in writing.

“That took a long time,” Noon said, but by about mid-May she emailed Curry a 35-page statement detailing the allegations. She has also provided a copy of the statement to the Press & Journal.

However, it seemed to Noon that the more information she provided to Curry, the more Middletown police stepped up their campaign of what she said is harassment.

For that reason, Noon said she believes the department cannot be left to investigate itself, and furthermore why in her view the process cannot be left up to the mayor.

The borough and Curry several times in recent years have referred investigations involving police to an outside entity, Transparency Matters, a private consulting firm led by a retired Pennsylvania State Police trooper.

A Transparency Matters investigation led to borough council in September 2014 firing a part-time officer whom the borough contended violated department policy during a high-speed chase.

The officer appealed his firing by filing a grievance, and council in 2016 approved paying a $10,000 settlement to resolve the issue.

Curry in October 2014 also recommended that Transparency Matters investigate after a borough man complained to council of a wrongful arrest by the department. The outcome of that probe is not known.

In January 2015, council at the urging of then-Middletown Police Chief John Bey hired Transparency Matters to do a broad independent audit of department policies and procedures. Transparency Matters completed that evaluation and submitted it to the borough in May 2015.

Morris in a phone conversation with the Press & Journal just before the June 13 march, declined comment when asked about Noon’s allegations.

He referred comment to Curry, who did not respond to a request for comment from the Press & Journal. By Pennsylvania statute, the mayor is in charge of the police department in each borough.

The policy Morris provided to the Press & Journal says nothing about the mayor having a role in the complaint process.

The policy was enacted in January 2014, during the first month of Curry’s tenure as mayor after he was sworn in after being elected the first time in 2013. Curry was re-elected mayor in 2017.

The policy was put in place under Steven R. Wheeler, who when hired as police chief in February 2013 had not been a municipal police officer since 1984. Instead, he came to the borough from a civilian position with the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office.

Wheeler resigned as Middletown police chief in April 2014.

No written racism allegations

Morris in a June 25 email to the Press & Journal said many complaints the department receives are “verbal in nature” and made “almost immediately following an event such as an arrest.”

“These verbal complaints when I first started and still to this day find their way to the mayor” and that has been the case long before Curry took office, according to Morris.

“When I started in 2000, there was a time or two where the mayor would contact me to ask some questions about an incident,” Morris wrote in the email.

“I would certainly believe this would have been because a complaint was made directly to him,” Morris said.

Robert Reid was borough mayor from 2001 to when Curry took office in January 2014. Barbara Layne served as mayor in 2000.

Since 2000, “I don’t think anything has changed as it is rare I receive complaints,” Morris said. “I believe and have had discussions with Mayor Curry when he is following up on a complaint.”

Morris gave as an example of a verbal complaint the department receives a citizen complaining about people not stopping at stop signs throughout the borough.

“You need to consider first the number of stop signs throughout the borough and understand it is impossible to man every one,” he said in the email to the Press & Journal. “This will not stop complaints from coming. They are acted on. However, some individuals want and believe an officer can sit at his/her stop all day. This clearly is not feasible.”

As previously noted, Morris declined to comment on the allegations raised by Noon when he was asked about them on the phone by the Press & Journal.

But Morris in the June 25 email said: “I will tell you there have been no written allegations regarding racism or use of force since I have been the interim chief. I understand citizens have a variety of ways to voice their concerns. However, I would appreciate an opportunity to address a given concern.”

Wording on website

The Press & Journal in researching this article also reached out to Borough Manager Ken Klinepeter regarding a paragraph on the borough website about the need for Middletown Police Department to provide “for a process by which complaints that allege inappropriate, wrongful, or illegal conduct from both within and outside the department can be received and properly investigated.” 

While the paragraph referred to a process, no information was provided to describe what the process is, or how residents can submit a complaint.

In response, Klinepeter had added to the paragraph on the borough website a line saying that “Any comments or complaints can be reported in the ‘Contact Us’ tab at middletownboroughpolice.com or call the office at 717-902-0627.”

The link goes to the Middletown Police Department Crimewatch site, where someone clicking on the “Contact Us” pull-down is directed to a general email form. 

The pull-down menu for forms on the Crimewatch site allows people to download a form to commend an officer, make a traffic complaint, or request an officer keep an eye on a residence while people are away on vacation.

The pull-down menu does not include downloading a form to make any other type of written complaint about an officer, or a complaint regarding the department overall.

Council President Angela Lloyd did not respond to a request for comment regarding the process the department has in place for receiving and investigating complaints, and whether in her view that process is satisfactory.