NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

July 6, 2013

Report defends K9 use at St. Peter's Club

But chief also seeks review of sheriff's department tactics

By Marjorie Nesin
Staff Writer

---- — A police review and report have found no law enforcement wrongdoing as of yet in the weekend arrests outside of the St. Peter’s Club that incited a crowd and later angered residents who watched a video of the K9-assisted arrests online.

In a “preliminary response” to Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s request for a review of police actions outside of the club, Police Chief Leonard Campanello emphasized that Sgt. William Leanos’ decision to call in the Essex County Sheriff’s K9 unit for back up was warranted and appropriate as a crowd filled Rogers Street after Saturday’s closure at St, Peter’s Fiesta.

But the chief also said that the Essex County Sherrif’s Department K9 officers’ actions warrant further review.

“The act of the arrest of one individual produced what, on the surface and out of context, appears to be a disturbing video of a K9 handler forcibly taking the arrestee (peach colored shirt) to the ground as the individual is walking away from officers,” Campanello wrote. “As far as the request to deploy K9s and their handlers, I believe that the request was appropriate both in regards to timing and positioning.”

Many residents have continued to question why the department utilized the K9s for crowd control at all, when dogs had sat out any active Fiesta policing in the past, but Campanello stood by his department’s decision to set up a perimeter with the dogs.

The Gloucester Police Department in conjunction with the Sheriffs Department plans to evaluate the use of K9s in crowd situations and their effectiveness, an evaluation that the chief will incorporate in his overall Fiesta After-Action Report due in late August.

Mayor Carolyn Kirk had requested a special report on the implementation of K9 units after receiving multiple calls from concerned residents. The internal investigation, which resulted in no action against Gloucester police officers, also came after a Townsend woman filed a formal complaint questioning the use of K9 units and other police tactics just after 1 a.m. Sunday.

“I realize that Fiesta is a challenging time for our police force, and again, overall, we are pleased with the level of public safety provided,” Kirk had written in her letter to Campanello requesting the report.

The incidents that set Kirk’s phone jingling with calls from residents began when police entered the St. Peter’s Club to arrest a patron who was allegedly causing a disturbance.

A man answering the phone at the St. Peter’s Club Friday, said no one who could comment was available Friday afternoon.

But, according to Campanello’s preliminary report, the arrest and disturbance inside the club angered patrons, some of whom began yelling and screaming at police. Because the incident commander — Leanos — sensed a threat to public safety, with many in the crowd consuming alcohol, too, Leanos called in the K9s to set up a perimeter around the bar and disperse the group.

Sgt. George Gikas of the Essex County Sheriffs Deparment was one of the K9 officers called in. The two arrests he made, at least one caught on video, were the actions that enraged bystanders and people watching the video later, inspiring the internal police investigation into the incident.

Chief Campanello requested a report from Gikas to include in his response to the mayor. In recounting the incident, Gikas said the crowd had ignored commands to leave the area.

“We continued with verbal commands to clear the area and move along, to no avail,” Gikas wrote.

One man, who officers said they had told to leave the area at least four times, began swinging his arms at another K9 officer’s dog. Gikas “grabbed” that man’s shirt and pulled him into the street so another officer could handcuff him, he said.

Then, a second man pointed a finger at Gikas and threatened to kill his K9, he said.

“I stepped towards the man and grabbed his t-shirt and pulled him onto the street,” Gikas wrote. “From the momentum, we both spun and fell.”

By Sunday morning, video footage of the second arrest posted online was stirring anger among many. People noted that, when the plaintiff was on the ground, a barking K9 lunged toward him. The K9’s handler, John Pickles of the Sheriff’s Department, addressed that action in his own report.

“As he was resisting placement of handcuffs, I moved in to allow my muzzled K9 to bark and with intention to bump him with the muzzle,” Pickles wrote.

While Gikas wrote that he experienced no further problems after the second arrest, Pickles arrested one more woman, charging her with disorderly conduct after she tried to rush past he and his K9.

“With the perimeter clearly set, and barking from my K9, one woman attempted to run past my K9,” Gikas wrote. “She was pushed back with the muzzle to her shoulder area. She was ordered again not to enter the area, and she again tried to get past the K9 and myself.”

Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at mnesin@gloucestertimes.com.