Following a closed-door meeting, Monday, it took just nine minutes to approve Sgt. John Hank as the new Town of Montgomery Chief.
The Montgomery Town Board voted 4-1 to hire Hank as the new chief for a one-year probationary period and, in the words of Town Supervisor Brian Maher “pending a complete and thorough independent background investigation conducted separately and within our own police department.”
He will receive a salary of $125,000.
The motion to hire Hank was made by Deputy Supervisor Ronald Feller and seconded by Councilwoman Sheryl Melick. Councilwoman Kristen Brown cast the lone “no” vote.
The decision came after a tumultuous month in which Hank was accused of racism at one meeting, and vigorously defended at another.
At an October meeting, Walden resident Merrick Dammar described an incident involving Hank more than a decade earlier in which he alleged the officer used “the N-word” and threatened to use a taser on his friend who had been pulled over.
At the next meeting, Hank himself appeared to refute the Dammar version of the incident.
“I did not use the word that I’m accused of using during this arrest,” said Hank. “The accusation of using that word is vile and not how I speak or conduct myself.”
The controversy reached a climax Monday afternoon when Lisa Ruiz, a member of Valley Central’s Parents for Social Justice released two videos involving Hank during the arrest of Melbourne Ridge on Dec. 25, 2016. She said the videos were “shared to an anonymous comment box created to give officers in the Town of Montgomery police department and the public an opportunity to share any information they might have relating to Sgt Hank and/or any TOM police officer that has acted inappropriately or harmed them.”
The first video, which lasts for about one minute, appears to show an individual walking. He is asked repeatedly where he is going?
“I’m not going anywhere,” he says.
At that point, a scuffle ensues and the suspect is apparently wrestled to the ground in the snow.
The second video, which runs approximately 4:28 minutes shows the suspect on the ground being handcuffed.
“I can’t breathe,” is heard on the video.
“We’re not on you bro,” is heard.
They’re saying there’s shots fired,” one police officer says.
“We gotta tell them that’s not true.”
“What the f---- bro. I can’t believe you did this shit to me,” one officer is heard to say. “You f—kin’ fought with me bro. Are you serious?”
Several officers are then order the suspect to stand up.
“I will make you f--king stand,” one of them says shortly before the video ends.
“The Town of Montgomery had a potential George Floyd event” Ruiz said, “and only avoided it because Melbourne Ridge did not die during the encounter.”
Maher addressed the issue during the meeting.
“It has come to my attention that a series of videos have been put on social media showing an incident between then police offer John Hank and fellow police officers responding to a property damage accident on Dec 25, 2016,” Maher said. “A local African American resident was arrested on nine charges including DWI, resisting arrest and assault 2nd degree. This individual drove drunk into a tree and could have easily killed someone. This video shows footage that is hard to watch and specifically the individual charged yelled ‘I can’t breathe,’ which is a charge we all know too well. What happened to George Floyd was criminal and horrifying, and this incident was not that.”
“After watching those videos, one part that stood out to me, was seeing police officer Hank personally take another officer off the assailant, making sure he was able to breath, and calling for EMS in case he needed medical attention. Also the video does not show that several days after the incident, the individual who was arrested, came into the police station, and apologized to Officer Hank. We ask our police officers to put their lives on the line every day. Any officer can respond to a call and if that call does go wrong, the officer may not come home…”
Melick, who voted in favor of hiring Hank, offered an explanation.
“This has been a very very tough decision for me and I’m sure the rest of the board. There’s been things that have been brought to our attention. My name was put in the paper that there was things that happened 11 years ago that I knew about. I did not know anything about them until the gentleman came here and made that statement,” Melick said. “Further into the statement, there were a couple of things that were found untrue in that statement, so as far as I’m concerned, he lost some credibility there in saying some things, and I did talk to John and John said he did not do that. I do believe that at the very next meeting John came and spoke in front of the public and actually he did not do the things that he was accused of. Like I said, and I want to make it a point that I did not know about this at all, ever, until that gentleman was here. I even inquired to Mike Hayes, who was the supervisor at the time. He said it was never brought to his attention and he never brought it to our attention. I also spoke to Dan Dempsey who was on the board at that time, and he said it was never brought to his attention either. So I just want to make that clear….”
Brown, who voted no, asked for more time to investigate.
“In light of recent developments that we received today at noontime, without proper time to further the most recent matter that’s been brought to our attention and without full background investigation, I vote no at this time.”
Maher said the original plan was to decide at the next regular town meeting on the 18th, but because of a technicality, the individual needed to start prior to the 18th, hence the special meeting called on short notice.
“John Hank is not perfect and none of us are,” Maher said. “I believe that the best way for our community to move forward and have the potential to change things for the better, is with John Hank, with someone within our department. I will vote tonight to give John Hank a chance to be the best version of himself and to lead our police department. I am convinced working with him and will do everything I can to improve our department and improve our relationship with the community. I vote yes.”