Mass. police chief, board of health clash over COVID-19 business restrictions
Chief Dennis Minnich sent an email to health inspectors saying the department would not enforce any actions by the board of health
Telegram & Gazette
WEST BOYLSTON, Mass. — A doctor who serves on the town's Board of Health is requesting selectmen take action after Police Chief Dennis Minnich Sr. sent an email that appears to threaten health officials looking to enforce Gov. Charlie Baker's COVID-19 business restrictions with the specter of arrest.
"I am absolutely incensed by this email and believe that Mr. Minnich should be dismissed from the West Boylston police Department," Dr. John Sullivan wrote in an email to Town Adminstrator Nancy Lucier Monday.
Minnich sent the email, titled "Open up My Town," May 17 to Karyn E. Clark, director of the Department of Public Health in Worcester, which provides health inspectional services to West Boylston.
"Karyn, I hope that all is well with you," Minnich began. "I am alerting all of our businesses today that this 'shut down' is unconstitutional and illegal and that the PD will not enforce any actions by the B of H and furthermore that they should advise the 'agents' of the B of H to leave the premises immediately.
"The WBPD will most certainly follow trespassing policies which are to arrest trespasses after notice. Please advise your personnel so as to avoid any issues.
"These so called 'Orders' by the Governor are not valid nor (constitutional) and will not be enforced. Respectfully, Dennis Minnich, Chief."
Sullivan, who specializes in allergy and immunology at UMass Memorial, told the Telegram & Gazette Monday that he took the chief's words as a threat: come in to my town to enforce Baker's orders, and you could be arrested.
"I find this email unfathomable for a police chief leader in a community trying to manage its way through a life threatening epidemic," he said.
The issue of businesses reopening has been a thorny one for Baker. Some see his cautious approach as justified to preserve public health, while others believe he has been too slow to announce plans to reopen the economy.
In a telephone interview Tuesday, Minnich said he believes he would be betraying his oath by enforcing orders he sees as unconstitutional. However, he agreed he could have chosen his words differently, and insisted he did not mean for the email to come off as threatening.
"I've never threatened anybody in my life," said the longtime chief, who lives on a 200-acre farm and peppers jokes into his speech frequently.
Minnich said he sent the email because he wanted it to be known that he did not believe it to be his department's purview to enforce Baker's business restrictions.
He said his statement about trespassing arrests was not meant to be threatening, but informational. He said that any property owner has a right to request a person to leave private property, and that if no trespass orders are issued, they can result in arrest.
"Next to nobody ever gets arrested for trespassing (here)," he said.
Minnich, asked about the wording used in several parts of the email, maintained the language was not meant as a threat.
Asked about his statement that he was going to be "alerting" businesses that police would not enforce orders of the board of health, Minnich said that he didn't intend to proactively reach out to businesses, but would tell the many businesses who have been calling him that if he were them, he would open.
Asked about his statement that he would be telling business owners they should "advise" board of health agents to leave their premises immediately, he said he did not mean he was giving them that advice, but was informing them of their options.
"I probably should have written it a different way," he said, adding that property owners have the right to ask anyone to leave private property.
He went on to note that if police enter private property and no crime is ongoing, for instance, they can only come back if they get a warrant.
Minnich said he's a blunt person by nature – "sometimes I'm too blunt, I guess" – and added that he knows Clark and figured she would call him if she had questions.
Instead, email records show Clark – who was not made available for comment by the city of Worcester – immediately forwarded the Sunday afternoon email to members of her staff and to Lucier, the West Boylston administrator.
Upon being made aware of the email, Sullivan told Lucier he thought the chief ought to be fired, and requested in an email that she place the topic on the Board of Selectmen's agenda for Wednesday night.
Lucier wrote Sullivan back that she, as Minnich's boss, would handle the matter herself – sentiment she repeated to the T&G Tuesday.
"I don't think any further action is needed," Lucier said, explaining that she spoke to Minnich and has been assured he will assist health agents if needed.
Asked about the implied threat of arrest in the email, Lucier responded, "That's not what he meant. I suppose you could look at it this way, but that's not what he meant."
Lucier said the chief had changed his position on helping health agents, and that she had placed a call to Clark to assure her of that.
"He will help them, and he will certainly clarify his statement," Lucier said.
Minnich told the T&G that he still will not enforce orders of the Board of Health, but would "absolutely" respond if there were any safety concerns or if the peace needed keeping.
He said if he could retract the email, he would have, adding he has already informed Lucier that if he needs to apologize, he will.
"I don't look for trouble," he said, adding that he wouldn't have been able to stay police chief since 1997 if he was "a jerk."
Informed of Minnich's comments, Sullivan said Tuesday he would still like to see the matter addressed by selectmen. He said he can't see how the email – despite any after-the-fact statements – could be seen as anything other than threatening.
Sullivan said he was so taken aback by the language that he initially thought perhaps someone had hacked the chief's email account.
"People need to know this is what one of your leadership employees is doing," he said, adding that, at a minimum, a written apology is in order.
"I would certainly want him to make amends in a more public manner, rather than just on the telephone or in a phone conversation with the town administrator."
Minnich said if the selectmen were to hold a hearing, he wouldn't attend.
"I never expected (the email) to go anywhere," he said, volunteering that he was surprised to receive a call on the topic from state police.
"To me, it's not an issue," he said. "I can't believe it got to this point."