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Structure of Middletown Police Department takes shape with Mouchette as chief, 2 new sergeants

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 8/9/17

George Mouchette has already brought changes to Middletown Police Department since being appointed interim chief in January — more focus on community policing and a new bicycle patrol, to name …

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Structure of Middletown Police Department takes shape with Mouchette as chief, 2 new sergeants

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George Mouchette has already brought changes to Middletown Police Department since being appointed interim chief in January — more focus on community policing and a new bicycle patrol, to name a few.

Now that Mouchette has some job security — having been appointed permanent chief by borough council on Monday, Aug. 7 — the retired New York City police detective can start planning in earnest for what’s to come.

“I expect there will be a lot of changes over the next year and I am looking forward to that,” Mouchette told the Press & Journal the morning after council voted 6-1 to make Mouchette the town’s new permanent chief at a salary of $96,000 a year.

Mouchette will not receive health insurance or other benefits through the borough, Council President Damon Suglia said. “It’s just straight salary.”

The borough has been paying Mouchette $60,000 a year with no benefits and no 401(k) since Mouchette was appointed as interim chief by Mayor James H. Curry III to replace the last permanent chief, John Bey, who resigned in late December.

Councilor Diana McGlone cast the lone vote against hiring Mouchette, saying that she objected to the salary that Mouchette would be paid, not to Mouchette himself.

Council also promoted to sergeant two current Middletown Police Department patrol officers, Scott Yoder and Dennis Morris. Council approved making Tyler Zehring a full-time permanent patrol officer, following Zehring having successfully completed a one-year probation.

The votes for Yoder and Zehring were unanimous. McGlone abstained on the vote promoting Morris to sergeant.

Suglia said the borough looked at salaries being paid to chiefs by other area municipalities.

“We came to the conclusion that this would be a fair salary for both the borough and the chief,” Suglia said.

Searching for stability

Including Mouchette, the borough has had six acting, interim or “permanent” police chiefs since February 2012, when Keith Reismiller resigned after a 15-year stint as top cop.

Bey served in the post for two years and almost three months — a relatively lengthy stint compared to the track record since Reismiller’s departure.

“We are tired of the revolving door of the chief of police here in Middletown,” Suglia said. “Chief Mouchette has proved himself a worthy candidate who is perfectly capable of doing the job. All of us here in Middletown put our trust in him, and we feel good about our decision and the salary that we offered him.”

Curry has made no secret of his preference for making Mouchette permanent chief, and the mayor repeated those sentiments following the council meeting.

“I’m excited to have somebody who I think is extremely dedicated to our community. I think in a very short time frame (Mouchette) has really earned the trust of the public,” Curry said. “He shares the exact same ideas I have with regards to community policing. We got exactly what we needed. I have the utmost faith in his ability to keep this department moving in the direction that it is.”

The $96,000 salary may come as “sticker shock” to some residents, the mayor acknowledged, but the borough was paying Reismiller $97,448 back in January 2012.

“Paying Chief Mouchette $96,000 is reasonable, it’s fair, it’s what a man of his talent deserves,” Curry said. “You were paying somebody that years ago. The cost of living goes up, the price of talent goes up, I’m fully comfortable giving him that salary. You get what you pay for, or you lose what you don’t pay for.”

Running the department

Mouchette thanked council “for confirming me,” and expressed gratitude to Curry.

“He has advocated for me,” Mouchette said of the mayor. The new chief also wants the public to know that “the feeling is mutual” when it comes to the mayor’s comments about having a good working relationship.

He went on to do a little advocating of his own, saying that while he’s heard some people say that Curry is too hands off when it comes to the department, “I feel like we have the right amount of connection.”

“It’s my job to run the department. His job is to know the vision of what the community wants the department to be, and to relay that vision to me. He doesn’t micromanage me.”

Picking sergeants

Yoder and Morris were among three full-time officers who scored high enough in written and oral exams to be certified as eligible to be promoted to sergeant by the borough civil service commission.

The third officer who was eligible, Patrolman James Bennett, scored higher than Morris. Yoder scored the highest of the three.

Council’s decision to promote Yoder and Morris to the two sergeant positions currently available was based upon the recommendations of Mouchette and Curry, Suglia said.

Bennett, a Middletown police officer since 2006, had been a sergeant and was acting chief in 2014 from when Steven Wheeler resigned as chief in April until Bey took over in October.

Bennett was suspended and demoted to patrolman after being charged with summary disorderly conduct and public drunkenness during an off-duty party in the borough on Dec. 24, 2015.

Bennett successfully completed ARD in Dauphin County Court and returned to duty in 2016.

Morris started with the department in 2000. Borough council fired him in 2014, but in May 2015 an arbitrator ruled that the borough had no grounds to fire Morris.

According to court documents, the borough fired Morris for neglect or violation of an official duty, inefficiency, neglect, disobedience of orders and conduct unbecoming an officer.

Morris alleged in the federal lawsuit that his firing was retribution for his reporting to the Dauphin County District Attorney and state Attorney General that former Chief Steven Wheeler was not certified as a police officer and therefore “did not have any law enforcement authority under Pennsylvania law,” according to the lawsuit. As such, council’s hiring of Wheeler “violated the Borough Code and other state law,” according to Morris’s lawsuit.

Council voted to reinstate Morris to the force in November 2015, after a Dauphin County judge tossed aside a borough petition to set aside the arbitrator’s decision.

Besides back pay, Morris was awarded an additional $52,000 by the borough to settle a federal lawsuit that Morris had brought against the borough regarding his firing in 2014.

Following council’s action promoting Yoder and Morris to sergeant, Curry praised Morris as “a workhorse.”

“That’s the type of person that we want overseeing everybody else on the force, so I’m excited to have him as sergeant,” Curry said of Morris.

Yoder was hired by MPD in 1998. Curry said he has been “quite impressed” with his development since Curry became mayor in 2014.

“He is going to make an excellent sergeant, and this is the type of opportunity that he needed and deserves. I have the utmost faith that he will do an excellent job,” Curry said.

Need for sergeants

Promoting officers to sergeants is something that both Bey and Mouchette have long said is needed to bring supervision and accountability to the department, the mayor noted.

Yoder, already the department armorer, will be placed in charge of logistics; which will also include responsibility for supply and for maintaining department vehicles and bicycles.

Morris will head operations, which will include patrol functions, the investigative arm of patrol, and the department's computer systems.

Each sergeant will also have two shift supervisors, meaning that every single shift will have a supervisor present at all times, Mouchette has said.

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