WINDHAM – Sgt. Michael Denbow, the Windham police officer who was terminated last August after probing the town’s decision to merge dispatch with Cumberland County, has been reinstated.

While allowed to resume work, Denbow, a 29-year veteran who had no prior blemishes on his record, will not receive back pay from the 14 months he has been off the job.

The decision to reinstate Denbow was handed down Thursday, Oct. 20, by Joseph D’Arrigo, the arbitrator in the case, which pitted the town of Windham against Windham Police Association, the union that represented Denbow.

In his summary, D’Arrigo said that Denbow “violated some but not all of the rules he was charged with,” but that there was “no just cause” for Denbow’s termination.

D’Arrigo cited Denbow’s long tenure without any service blemishes and the lack of personal benefit from Denbow’s investigative actions.

“Although I found (Denbow) was misguided and overzealous in his efforts to keep dispatch in Windham, he did not seek or receive any personal benefit or gain as a consequence of his actions,” D’Arrigo wrote in his 24-page decision. “His motive was ideological. He let his personal feelings get away from him, and he failed to adequately separate his role as a police officer from his role as a private citizen.”

While Denbow could not be reached for comment, Windham Officer Matt Cyr, the union’s vice president, said “steps are being taken” to allow Denbow to resume his duties – namely, mandatory annual training that he has missed and must complete. Cyr wasn’t sure when Denbow’s first day back in uniform would be.

Commenting on the case, Cyr said, “In this country, we have a guaranteed right to due process and that process was followed and was adhered to. A mutual third party looked at it and we have to respect his opinion.”

Town Manager Tony Plante, speaking on behalf of the town, said, “The arbitration decision is what it is, and we’re working on a plan to bring Mr. Denbow back to work.” He declined to comment further.

Police administration declined to comment.

Case origins

According to the arbitrator’s summary of events that led up to Denbow’s firing, there were several charges levied against Denbow, all relating to the Windham Town Council’s vote to merge dispatching services with Cumberland County in June 2010. The charges included conduct unbecoming an officer, failure to submit an investigative report, recording a conversation with a town councilor without the councilor’s knowledge, and misusing his official position.

The council voted on the merger in June 2010. Denbow, who felt the move would result in poor service and compromised safety for police officers, worked behind the scenes to reverse the decision by lobbying former Councilor Donna Chapman to change her opinion on the merger and force a second vote to rescind the first vote. Denbow, while delivering the council packet to Chapman after the vote, secretly recorded the conversation. The arbitrator concluded after listening to the tape that the recording “reveals his objective: to convince her that she made a mistake in voting to transfer dispatch. This may be a legitimate objective for a private citizen but it is a different matter for a police officer on duty and on official business.”

With councilors Carol Waig and John MacKinnon already opposed to the merge, Denbow was lobbying Chapman since she would have been the third vote against the merger. With seven councilors, four of whom were firmly supportive of merging dispatch for its potential cost savings, Denbow began investigating Chairman Bill Tracy, who worked at Gorham Savings Bank, which did business with the county. Denbow, according to the arbitrator’s documents, was aiming to get Tracy to recuse himself from a second vote on the matter because of what Denbow described as a conflict of interest.

Denbow communicated via email with Waig, a friend and fellow law enforcement official, that he had discovered a conflict of interest due to Tracy’s decision-making role at the bank. Denbow wanted Waig to discuss the matter in executive session with the council in hopes that Tracy would recuse himself from a second vote. A second 3-3 vote would have killed the prior merger vote.

Waig and Chapman testified during arbitration hearings held this summer that Tracy instead expressed his desire to fire Denbow in two executive sessions where Waig brought up Denbow’s concerns. He then notified the press that an internal investigation was being conducted against Denbow. The arbitrator didn’t comment on Tracy’s actions, but determined Denbow should have had the ability to defend himself in the executive sessions that led to his termination.

The arbitrator also concluded that Denbow failed to prove that Tracy’s role at the bank was an actual conflict of interest. Denbow, D’Arrigo determined, should not have investigated Tracy without proper authorization.

“Sgt. Denbow failed to separate his actions as a private citizen who found a conflict and did not know how to address it and his role as a police officer investigating an alleged wrongdoing. He had the right as a private citizen to appeal to Councilor Waig and ask her direction concerning the alleged conflict of interest, even if it affected the vote. That is his right of free speech,” D’Arrigo wrote. “At the same time, he was constrained as a police officer from using his office to engage in actions which were contrary to the stated goal of the department to transfer dispatch. He conducted the investigation as a police officer. … His actions as a police officer were improper and intemperate which reflected discredit on him as a police officer, and his department. Based on the foregoing, I find that he did engage in conduct unbecoming an officer.”

Regarding Denbow’s recording of the conversation with Chapman, the arbitrator said undisclosed recording is legal in Maine but that Denbow was still using his position improperly.

“Sgt. Denbow was at Ms. Chapman’s house as an on-duty officer the entire time,” D’Arrigo wrote. “Sgt. Denbow’s position that his role changed to concerned citizen after he delivered the packet to her is not convincing. He was on duty working and being paid by the town.”

Chapman could not be reached for comment. Waig, who said Denbow has not been allowed to collect unemployment since being terminated, said both sides in the matter “can feel a little vindicated” with the judge’s ruling. She’s “glad” Denbow will be reinstated, but “a little disappointed” he won’t get any back pay.

“It doesn’t matter if you like Mike Denbow or not, if the town is allowed to do this to him and get away with it, they can do the same thing to anybody,” she said. “And let us not forgot, this has ruined Mike’s life for the last 14 months. He’s had to take part-time jobs to make ends meet, and I just hope people think about whether this was really worth it.”

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