Ticketing probe recommends firing of police union president
Antonucci on paid leave, facing 7 misconduct charges; Fung calls for department reforms, says search for new chief an ‘opportunity’
The head of the city’s police union is facing seven misconduct charges and a recommendation that his employment be terminated following a Rhode Island State Police investigation into allegations of retaliatory ticketing on the part of Cranston police in November of last year.
“The facts have led the state police to conclude that Capt. [Stephen] Antonucci ordered patrolmen to step up the issuing of parking tickets on the morning after the City Council’s vote on the proposed police contract,” said Mayor Allan Fung, flanked by State Police Col. Steven O’Donnell and Capt. Kevin Barry, the Cranston department’s acting chief, during a Thursday press conference at City Hall.
“These were serious charges that required a thorough investigation,” the mayor said, adding that the city’s residents “deserve to have a government that is above reproach and acting in their best interests.”
Fung said as a result of the “very thorough” probe, Antonucci faces “seven counts of violating the rules and regulations surrounding conduct for police officers.” The mayor said the captain – who serves as president of International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 301 – is expected to exercise his rights under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights.
Fung additionally said that based on the state police review of the Cranston department, he will be pursuing reforms “that will help guard against this type of situation occurring in the future.”
“It has become clear to me that a member of the police union should not also hold the management rank of captain,” he said. “In my opinion, this creates a conflict between labor and management.”
As a search is conducted for a new chief following the retirement of Col. Marco Palombo Jr., Fung said he also plans pursue changes to clarify the roles and expectations of police personnel and those in the command structure.
“New leadership and structural changes are necessary to restore the public’s confidence in our police department,” he said.
Attorney Vincent Ragosta, who is providing counsel in the matter, said Antonucci’s paid leave is required under the process outlined in the officers’ bill of rights.
“That is the requirement that the city must abide by,” he said.
Ragosta said the suspension would last though a hearing, which will determine Antonucci’s guilt or innocence on the seven charges and decide whether the recommended punishment is appropriate. The suggested action is subject to modification by the hearing board.
Ragosta declined to specify the nature of the seven charges, other than to stress they are “non-criminal” and deal with alleged violations of the department’s conduct and ethics guidelines.
“We are not going to enumerate the charges … we prefer to maintain the integrity of the hearing process,” he said.
Thursday’s announcement comes after months of twists – and much lingering uncertainty – tied to allegations that Cranston police in mid-November conducted retaliatory mass-ticketing of vehicles in two wards following a vote of the council’s Finance Committee against a new contract with the police union.
At a December council meeting, Councilmen Steven Stycos and Paul Archetto – who represent wards one and three, respectively, and who voted against the contact – made public their belief that their neighborhoods had been targeted.
An internal investigation was launched, and Fung later said he would employ a New Jersey-based private investigator to review its findings. Just before a planned January vote on a council ordinance calling for state police involvement, however, the mayor – citing new information – on back-to-back days announced he had requested a state police investigation of the ticketing and an overall review of the department, placed Palombo on paid leave and asked for an acting chief to be assigned.
Antonucci, through the union’s legal counsel, later publicly acknowledged having ordered the November ticketing, but asserted it was part of a broader enforcement effort and the that timing was coincidental. The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island subsequently requested records to evaluate the captain's explanation.
Joseph J. Rodio, the union’s lawyer, has additionally asserted through the media that Cranston officers began writing substantially fewer overnight parking tickets after the fine was increased from $15 to $50.
Fung in January said he would ask that the tickets issued during the alleged November blitz be forgiven or refunded.
Pressure has mounted since December for more clarity regarding the situation, with several council members – particularly Council President John Lanni – vocal in their desire for more transparency. Fung and administration officials did meet with council members behind closed doors in January to discuss the matter.
The mayor on Thursday thanked the city’s residents for their “patience” and said the process has been “thorough, measured and diligent.”
“This chapter is about to be closed,” he said.
Fung additionally addressed the Cranston department’s search for a new chief in the wake of Palombo’s retirement. The former chief was reinstated on St. Patrick’s Day for the sole purpose of submitting his retirement letter, which has been accepted by the council.
“His departure presents the city with an opportunity to bring in a new leader, someone who can bring the department together, clarify the expectations of conduct for our officers, and uphold the standards of conduct expected of all law enforcement officers … [and] build a culture of public accountability and transparency,” said the mayor.
Fung did not rule out an internal promotion to the police department’s top post.
“We are searching for the best person, either inside or outside the department,” he said.
Fung said placing Palombo “wasn’t a mistake,” and was designed to provide state police with an “independent, objective opportunity” to review the ticketing allegations and conduct a “top-down review of the entire department.”
“I want to reiterate … that there was never any allegation from the beginning that Col. Palombo was involved” in the ticketing, the mayor said. “But it doesn’t negate the fact that he was the leader at the time that this happened.”
O’Donnell also said Palombo was never connected to the allegations.
“He was not part of the probe,” he said. “We interviewed everybody involved. There’s nothing that led us to believe, at all, that Col. Palombo had anything to do with the ticketing.”
Barry will remain in command of the Cranston department while the search for a new chief is conducted.
Fung – who highlighted recent achievements in Cranston, including positive fiscal news, during his opening remarks on Thursday – shot down the suggestion his handling of the police situation has been shaped by his campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
“This is not about politics at all,” he said.
The mayor spoke highly of the work of Cranston personnel during the “damaging” attention of the last several months.
“It is important to remember that the state police parking ticket investigation determined it was the action of only one officer who ordered the ticketing on that night, and that officer will be held accountable,” he said.
“We have a good police department … They’re working hard. They’re out there doing their jobs,” he said.