MARBLEHEAD – In July, Dennis A. King Jr., the town’s new police chief and former acting chief in neighboring Salem, took over the Marblehead Police Department from former longtime chief Robert Picariello.
Not long after he started, the former graffiti investigator in Salem found himself investigating “a hate crime of graffiti vandalism” in a town conservation area, he posted on Facebook.
While out for an early-morning jog on the Marblehead path later that month, he came across what he thought was more graffiti, but which turned out to be an inspirational mural of hope and peace written on a bridge by Marblehead Boy Scout Troop 11. King was heartened “that even as we deal with terrible and hateful incidents, there is hope and tolerance shining through.”
In recent years, the department has dealt with a number of antisemitic and racist graffiti incidents, which King said are tough crimes to solve.
“We will continue to work, I think, as a community to make people feel that that’s not acceptable,” said King.
“As a community,” Town Administrator Jason Silva said of King’s efforts, “we have focused on education and training as well as speaking out against hate with a goal to prevent these incidents from occurring in the future. Chief King has already played a role in supporting and expanding upon these efforts within the department and the community.”
The department is also dealing with the fallout from an incident in which a former officer allegedly scratched a swastika into the paint of a fellow officer’s private vehicle on July 1, 2019.
This incident, which took nearly a year and a half to come to light, led to a six-month investigation as the community and the department tried to come to grips with what happened. The officer who allegedly scratched the symbol, Timothy Tufts, resigned from the force in December 2020, and Picariello moved to have the incident reviewed by an outside investigator.
King, a Salem native who started with the Salem Police Department in 1999, was officially sworn in on Aug. 20 in a ceremony in Abbot Hall. But he started on the job in July after Picariello retired, just as the investigation into the incident by Winthrop Police Chief/interim Town Manager Terence Delehanty wrapped up.
Residents were concerned about the lag in reporting of the incident to the former chief, the antisemitic overtones of the swastika, and diversity in the department at a time when the town was hiring a new chief.
Among its findings, the report found a number of officers had knowledge of the incident and failed to report it up the chain of command before it came to the attention of the chief.
“There’s a lot to unpack in the report,” King said, “and everything I’ve been able to look at and unpack right now and work on, by the way, in terms of figuring out how we identify things like understanding rules and regulations, updating rules, regulations, and policies, those are things that I have some experience at and that I know we can do better on.
“I believe that the reporting of the incident, the delay of the investigation, all of those things are something that we recognized needed to be improved on,” King said, “and the report identifies that and we will, but there was not this inherent desire to cover things up, there was not this inherent desire to keep an officer on that committed that type of an act.”
When it comes to dealing with hate incidents, King said he is fortunate to be able to call on the Anti-Defamation League and Helaine Hazlett, cochair of the Marblehead Task Force Against Discrimination, who has been doing anti-discrimination work in town for decades. King also plans to serve on the task force.
“One of Helaine’s things to me was, ‘This is not just about antisemitism, it’s about all sorts of disenfranchise,’ and I said, ‘That is how it should be,’” King said.
Hazlett said in an email she supported the report’s findings. “It was thorough and complete. Marblehead’s chief already has implemented several of the recommendations – he has scheduled training for his department through [the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination] and ADL on hate crimes, discrimination, and cultural inclusiveness.
“I am immensely impressed with Chief King’s knowledge and genuine compassion in addressing the [police officer] incident. On day one, even before the report had been delivered, the chief was speaking to his officers and members of the community, gathering information about this horrific incident. As both Chief Delehanty and Chief King have said: Although it was not a hate crime, it was a hateful crime.”