WESTOVER — A more than 90-minute audio file posted on YouTube earlier this month details several alleged actions of Lt. Aaron Dalton and how each situation was handled.
Former police chief Richard Panico confirmed Monday afternoon to The Dominion Post that the September 2020 meeting was held between himself, police Lt. John Morgan, Westover city attorney Tim Stranko, and city councilman Steve Andryzcik.
It is unconfirmed who uploaded the video. It was posted under the name “Alex Butterfield,” likely a reference to Alexander Butterfield, former President Richard Nixon’s assistant who revealed the existence of the White House’s recording system during the Watergate investigation.
Panico said the meeting was held after an August 2020 letter signed by 11 members of the Westover Police Department was released, as well as Panico’s resignation.
“[Stranko] called me on the phone and he said he wanted to talk to the ringleaders,” Panico said. “After a little bit of conversation, his idea of the ringleaders was everybody that signed the letter.”
Panico said he told Stranko he did not permit him to speak with the officers who signed the letter directly. Shortly after that phone call, Panico said Stranko requested the meeting that is heard in the audio file.
‘There’s two police departments here’: Concerns over chain of command
In the audio file, the conversation starts with discussions around Lt. John Morgan taking over as interim chief, but soon moves to discussing the August 2020 letter. In the audio, Morgan voiced his concerns with taking on the position due to the liability that may come with it.
“I just feel I’m being stuck in here,” Morgan said during the meeting. “Yes, I am the senior person and good luck finding anybody else in the department to step into this because it ain’t gonna happen. [Other officers] won’t, they are so mad right now with everything going on.”
Morgan discussed the positive changes Panico had brought to the department, but said it was impossible to continue moving forward. When asked why this was the case, Panico stated, “There are two police departments here. They are the one that we have and they are the one the mayor has and that’s as simple as I can say it. That’s my observation.”
In addressing issues surrounding the chain of command, Stranko said if Mayor Dave Johnson fails to address the police department’s issues, the department should reach out to him instead.
“If the department’s going bad because of the mayor’s action, the first thing you should do is talk to the mayor,” Stranko said during the meeting. “And if that [doesn’t] work, the next thing you do is pick up the phone and call me, because that’s my job. I’m here to protect the citizens of the general fund at Westover, not Dave Johnson; he’s not my client.”
Stranko went on to acknowledge Johnson’s handling of the chain of command in the past.
“I’ve already corrected him and he’s agreed with me about intervening in the chain of command,” Stranko said in the audio. “So he’s agreed and promised he’s not talking to your subordinates anymore. That’s out. You know, he goes to you. And if that doesn’t happen, I need to know about it and I’ll help him do better. He wants to do the right thing, he really does; sometimes that doesn’t happen.”
Panico responded by saying he was told by Johnson not to contact Stranko or anybody else about situations in the police department.
Dalton’s alleged actions
Dalton is addressed several times throughout the audio, including alleged actions by Dalton, along with how each situation was handled.
Panico and Morgan addressed an alleged situation when Dalton had sexual intercourse with a woman while on duty and had been harassing her. When this incident allegedly occurred, Panico said he was instructed by the mayor to “make it go away.” Panico said he instructed Dalton to come in to make a counseling statement during which Panico allegedly told Dalton to avoid having contact with the woman.
Panico said he signed a counseling statement which became part of his personnel file. When this file was subpoenaed by a source unconfirmed in the audio, Panico reiterated that the mayor told him to “get rid of that.”
Panico also addressed a situation from eight months prior to the meeting when Johnson requested Dalton to work in parking enforcement. Panico said he told Johnson he had concerns with Dalton working directly under the mayor because there would be no oversight. In response, Panico said Johnson told him “let me worry about that.”
Panico highlighted another incident during Dalton’s time in parking enforcement in which Dalton allegedly arrested a woman at her home because she would not give him her ID. Panico said he explained to Dalton he wasn’t allowed to arrest her and dropped the charges. Panico said Johnson later asked him, “Why are you butting in on that?”
Other incidents described in the audio included a violation of a suspect’s 4th amendment right when Dalton searched their hotel room without consent or a warrant. Panico also said Dalton violated the department’s COVID-19 protocols several times.
Panico also brought up alleged interactions involving a female officer and other officers in the department with Dalton.
“We can’t even have her ride with him because we’re afraid of what he is going to say or do,” Panico said in the audio. He added Dalton also told other officers “I want to f— you in the a— and it’s not sexual. It shows you what kind of power I have over you.”
Concerns over impact on civic trust
Stranko mentioned in the audio multiple times his concerns over how the topics discussed could impact citizen’s trust in the Westover officials.
“This memo and your resignation letter are seriously detrimental to that,” Stranko said in the recording. “We’ve already got Danielle Walker and the rest of them screaming about it’s unsafe to be in Westover; what a terrible thing that is for the city.”
Stranko later added, “Public safety is serious business. That’s why this b—- over here, sorry, that’s why this delegate screaming about ‘Westover’s an unsafe place to be’ is so destructive, because we know that’s not the case.”
While referencing the department’s letter, Stranko also said “The route I hope we take in the future is less formal, less writing.”
Stranko told The Dominion Post Monday evening that he wishes he had never said that about Walker, but it came from anger.
He did not comment further on the 2020 meeting or the recording.