Navy says protecting boats is paramount, but officers fear law enforcement takes a back seat
Groton - Civilian police officers at the Naval Submarine Base say they spend so much time guarding the perimeter of the base, they're not enforcing state and federal laws within it.
Many officers, some of whom spent years working in municipal police departments, said things have to change to keep the people on the base safe. They describe a climate where drunken driving, speeding and other motor vehicle violations are tolerated.
Capt. Marc W. Denno, the commander of the base, and Patricia Adams, the director of security, say the officers are there to keep the submarines safe. If the subs aren't safe, the base has no reason to exist, Denno said.
"The security department is here for security. That is 90 percent of their job," he said, with public safety in the other 10 percent.
The officers have been at odds with their bosses for months over whether law enforcement should have a higher priority.
Interviews with current and former employees and Navy personnel, as well as documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act or provided by employees, revealed that officers are expected to act more like guards than cops, and that the department has been experiencing a series of disciplinary issues, including the following:
• Fourteen sailors - or about 10 percent of the staff at the time - were implicated in drug activity in May and removed.
• Staff complained that the director, who has no law enforcement experience, set an informal tone by bringing her children and father to work and let Navy chiefs deal with problems however they saw fit.
• In September, a chief who was not in uniform grabbed a gun and ran to the main gate when he heard a suspect in a robbery was headed there. The chief was not mistaken for the suspect, but Adams admits he could have been.
• And while the stated mission is "force protection" - security of the submarines - someone nearly managed to get onto one during a drill this spring.
Morale reached such a low point that the union representing civilian officers, the National Association of Government Employees, Local R1-100, told Denno in a letter that the department was "on the verge of a crisis."
The union voted "no confidence" in Adams' ability to lead in May, and officers filed complaints with the Naval Inspector General.
The Inspector General found that some of their allegations of mismanagement and regulatory violations could be substantiated but redacted the recommendations for addressing them in the documents released to The Day.
A mix of civilian and military personnel
About 50 of the 120-person security force are civilians. The rest are Navy security specialists, from young sailors just out of training to the Navy chiefs and a lieutenant who help run the department.
Denno said they are not law enforcement officers, but rather, highly trained security personnel. The force is mixed civilian and military because the base does not have enough sailors to fill all the security jobs.
"We're fortunate a lot of our civilian force is retired police officers. They bring quite a bit of experience to the base in that area," he said.
Their mission is anti-terrorism, force protection and maintaining good order and discipline on the base.
Civilian officers are leaving the department at a rate of about 10 per year, about a 20 percent turnover. Robert Faulise, the union president and a base police officer, finds the number high, but Denno said he expected it to be higher since young veterans use the job as a stepping stone.
As a public safety operation, officers on the midnight shift used to park outside the main gate to observe approaching cars and look for signs of drunken driving.
A civilian supervisor who is not in the union said officers are no longer told to look for drunken drivers or enforce traffic laws, which he said is "ridiculous."
"How are we supposed to protect the community if we don't do that?" said the supervisor, who asked not to be named because he feared losing his job for criticizing the department.
The union has documented three cases in the past 18 months in which officers were told to allow vehicles lacking insurance or registration documents to leave the base and go out onto public roads, said Faulise.
Another employee complained to the safety office because he was worried someone would get hurt with many people speeding, talking on their cellphones while driving or not wearing seat belts.
After he did so, he said, he saw security officers use radar guns for one day on the lower base and write dozens of tickets. He said he hasn't seen that since.
"I've been on all kinds of bases and I've never heard of any base that doesn't enforce traffic violations," said the employee, who asked to remain anonymous.
Denno said the department does use detection devices for speeding, and drunken drivers will be pulled over and processed, but he leaves some discretion to the personnel at the gate.
Eight people were stopped on the base for driving under the influence in 2010, four in 2011 and three this year, according to statistics from the base.
The number of traffic citations dropped from about 1,050 in 2010 to roughly 700 in 2011, but then increased to nearly 1,200 this year.
"The ticket-writing, the enforcement of parking, the other side of the law enforcement aspect, they don't have time to focus on that," Adams said. "We get to do it some when we have the manning to do it, but our main priority and focus has to be force protection."
Adams said she tells officers to pull people over and tell them to slow down, but "you don't have to be a jerk and write a ticket."
'Black marks' against the department
Last spring, while the Naval Inspector General was investigating complaints by members of the security force, an individual posing as a contractor in an unannounced drill was let onto an area of the pier where he should not have been.
In the April drill, Adams said, the sentry at the fence let the person pass, and a crew member at the submarine walkway did not thoroughly question the individual. A third crew member stopped him at the entrance to the sub's hatch, she said.
Adams said the Navy had made security departments responsible for training the sentries, and no one in Groton knew about it. The department has since adopted the new training.
Denno said no unauthorized personnel have gotten onto submarines.
In May, 14 active-duty sailors assigned to security were charged with drug use, possession or distribution.
Four of the sailors, John W. Elder, James M. Gutierrez, Nicholas B. Duerson and Derrick A. Sanders, later pleaded guilty at courts-martial.
Duerson was found guilty of conspiracy to distribute methylone, wrongful use of methylone and marijuana, and other charges. He was sentenced to six years' confinement, forfeiture of pay, reduction in rate and a dishonorable discharge.
Sanders was found guilty of distributing ecstasy, methylone and marijuana, wrongful use of ecstasy, methylone and marijuana, and other charges. He was sentenced to five years' confinement, a fine, reduction in rate and a bad conduct discharge.
Elder and Gutierrez were both found guilty of wrongful use of methylone and other charges. Elder was sentenced to hard labor, restriction, a reprimand, forfeiture of pay and a bad conduct discharge. Gutierrez was sentenced to confinement for four months, reduction in rate and a bad conduct discharge. The other 10 were given non-judicial punishment and administrative separation from the Navy.
Denno held a meeting shortly after the incident for all enlisted sailors assigned to the base to discuss his expectations.
Later in July, a car drove in through the exit of the base, and the personnel at the main gate didn't react, Adams said. It turned out the driver had accidentally gone the wrong way.
A meeting was held in August to discuss these "black marks" against the department, she said.
Adams said she reviewed procedures, simplified some and replaced outdated radios so sentries could easily communicate. No one was disciplined, she added.
In September, the Naval Federal Credit Union was robbed and the suspect drove toward the base. Several current and former officers say an off-duty Navy chief in the security force who was on the base grabbed a gun and ran to the main gate.
Base security, New London and Groton Town police jointly captured a suspect in the outbound lane of the main gate. The chief, who was not in uniform, could have potentially been mistaken for the suspect, Adams said.
"Do I think we're doing the best we can with what we have to work with? Yes," she said. "But if the world was perfect and we had all this money, could we do better? Yes."
Director of security
The director of security position had been vacant or filled temporarily for at least seven years when Adams was hired in November 2010.
Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, which encompasses the Navy installations along the Eastern Seaboard, appointed her. Denno said he agreed with the choice.
Some of the department's issues can be attributed to frequent turnover in leadership, Denno said, adding that like security departments across the Navy, it has been under-resourced for about two years.
The region's Inspector General found that Adams was at least partly to blame, too.
The inspector's report faulted Adams for bringing her children and her father to work and driving an emergency vehicle without proper training. It exonerated her of falsifying time cards or tasking subordinates to care for her children.
The investigator noted that Adams did not recognize the perception that it was inappropriate to bring her children into work, and that doing so posed safety issues, potentially distracted her from her official duties and disrupted others.
These type of actions, the report said, "sets the tone for what is considered acceptable conduct for the entire department."
A chief, whose name was redacted in the report, was found to have abused his authority by using abusive language and intimidating subordinates on more than one occasion, the report said.
The investigator recommended a climate assessment to figure out why morale was so low.
Officer David Olson said Adams "tries" but lacks basic knowledge about the discipline it takes to command a department at a submarine base.
Adams said she is the first female leading the security department, which is predominantly male, and some of the officers don't like that.
Others, she said, question her lack of law enforcement experience. An expert in physical security, Adams previously worked for the Air Force. She said she focuses on management issues while the department's security officer oversees operations. Denno re-established the security officer position after the investigation.
Adams said in her previous jobs, the staff was like family and people often brought their kids into the office. In Groton, she said, she didn't "get the same vibe."
"There was a lot of 'us' and 'them' but not a lot of 'we,' and that's one of the things I wanted to see change," she said. "I wanted us to be more of a family. That's something I've been running into resistance on. They have to understand they're my extended family."
She said she never intentionally broke the rules and that her father was helping her paint her office. She said she provided a copy of records from her training to drive an emergency vehicle after the report.
Adams said she received a non-punitive "letter of requirement," describing what she must do to become a better leader.
Faulise said he wasn't sure why the findings focused on minor issues after officers told the investigator about all of the problems, from minimal time spent on law enforcement to poor training and low morale. He would like Adams to be replaced.
Turnover with the military supervisors has improved things somewhat, Faulise said.
"But the person in charge has to take responsibility, and we don't think that's being done," he said.
'The safest place and the most dangerous place'
Denno, the base commander, said he still has confidence in the department's "ability to carry out the mission."
He oversees the security operations but Navy Region Mid-Atlantic, headquartered in Norfolk, Va., has the final say on personnel decisions and the security department's budget.
It's a system with a built-in tension, said Sean Sullivan, a retired Navy captain who commanded the submarine base from 2004 to 2006. Sullivan said when he was in charge, he had the authority to make changes, but the region would have to pay for the personnel.
"When I said, 'Hey, we need more money for X or Y, they'd suggest if we changed our operations we wouldn't need that," Sullivan said. "You had this tension set up in the way the Navy set up the organization."
Starting Jan. 17, Denno said, the security department will become accountable to him. So, too, will the housing, fire, fleet and family services and morale, welfare and recreation departments.
Denno wants to implement additional field training, which the union requested.
"The biggest thing in general would be everywhere you see 'Commander, Navy Region Mid-Atlantic' on the fire trucks or at the other departments that are now aligned to base, they will say they're part of Sub Base instead of Region," Denno said. "We have to change our internal messaging."
One officer who is new to the base but is a seasoned officer from a local police department, said he was baffled as he watched the events unfold over the past several months.
He said on a typical day, everything is fine. But he said he worries how a mismanaged and poorly trained department would respond in a serious incident.
The officer, who asked to remain anonymous, said, "This is the safest place and the most dangerous place I've ever worked in my life."