Parent Article: Worcester police officer accused of rape pleads not guilty
Worcester police officer accused of rape
by Cop Watch
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08 Jul 2014
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Police background checks rigorous, but ‘nothing is foolproof’
The police officer charged with raping a woman while on duty last year had to undergo what Worcester police describe as a “rigorous background check,” but that was when he was initially applying for a job. Officer Rajat Sharda was laid off in 2009 because of budget cuts and reinstated in 2011. When he returned, he had to pass another physical test. His last employer was also checked, but Sharda did not have to go through the same process as when he first applied.
“In the case of employees who successfully passed a background check, including psychological testing, and were laid off and eventually rehired, we would not conduct a second psychological exam,” Police Chief Gary Gemme says. “However, a candidate for reemployment goes through an updated background check covering the time period between the layoff and the rehiring. The best indicator for evaluation is on the job performance. We will not, and have not, rehired candidates that did not have exemplary job performance while laid off from the department.”
Officer Sharda, who returned to the department in 2011 after being laid off in 2009 because of budget cuts, has been charged with aggravated rape, extortion by a police officer, open and gross lewdness, armed robbery and witness intimidation in connection with the alleged sexual assault of a woman at Bancroft Tower last August. Sharda was allegedly on duty and patrolling the Tower, which is in Salisbury Park, when he encountered the woman. He allegedly asked the woman what she was willing to do to avoid being arrested. Police have not specified what she would have been charged with, but the park is closed to the public at night and officers routinely keep watch for trespassers. Sharda allegedly exposed himself to the woman and raped her with his fingers. He then allegedly took a bed comforter from the woman and threatened her to stay quiet. The woman tells police Sharda said he would “find her, her children and her family,” according to reports. Sharda was placed on paid administrative leave in the wake of his arrest.
Like every other officer who joins the Worcester Police Department, Sharda had to submit to psychological and physical testing, including a screening process before he could even go through the Police Academy. A CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) check is conducted. There is a roughly 30-page Personal History Questionnaire public safety candidates must fill out. They must see a psychiatrist. Friends, family members and neighbors are interviewed. The process starts six to eight months before recruit classes start, according to Hazelhurst. No one with a felony on his or her record is allowed through, and candidates could be excluded just for having too many traffic violations on their driving record, Sgt. Kerry Hazelhurst says.
With such a thorough process, the question could be asked whether something was missed in the screening and evaluation of Sharda. Should he and others who end up leaving the department and returning be required to go through the same extensive background checks and investigation before being rehired or reinstated? Or did everything function as it should have, with police having no way of knowing whether Sharda would turn around and allegedly commit a crime?
“Prior to beginning the background investigation process we review and update the screening procedures,” Gemme says. “We follow all State Civil Service rules and regulations, which spell out the process and parameters of a bypass. A deputy chief and a captain attend all the Civil Service update and training seminars as it relates to the Civil Service hiring process. This is a standard operational practice that we will continue to use as hiring opportunities arise.”
Members of the Department's background investigative unit are well-trained and experienced, Gemme adds.
“They have been involved in the vetting of hundreds of candidates for the police academy,” he says. “I have full faith in their ability to properly conduct these investigations, and while no process is foolproof, I am confident that the screening, testing, both psychological and physical, meet the highest standards of police officer evaluation.”
Neither Gemme nor Hazelhurst is discussing Sharda's case in detail publicly, but Gemme does say as authorities move forward with both the criminal and disciplinary investigation, “We will review all information related to Mr. Sharda's employment with the city.”
LOOKING FOR INDICATORS
According to the man who performs the psychiatric evaluations for the Worcester Police Department, the city is among the best he deals with when it comes to thoroughly screening applicants. Dr. Donald Seckler, with a practice in Concord, has been conducting evaluations for the department for several years. While he cannot recall specifically whether he screened Rajat, he does recall the class of which Rajat was part of that was laid off in 2009. He says Worcester police outperform many of their peers when it comes to background checks. “They do a very good job,” Seckler says. “My work in Worcester is actually easier than it is in many cities and towns. I see a lot of clean candidates. A lot of the real losers … they have already been rooted out and don't even get to my part of the screening.”
As for whether a more thorough screening should be done on officers who are returning from a layoff or other absence from their department, Seckler says, “Could it hurt? In theory, no. Are they supposed to do it or should they do it? That's another question. Should a mindful and careful employer do it? Should they be spending that money where there's all sorts of other things they should be spending it on? That's [up to the department or Civil Service].”
Speaking to his role in evaluating potential police officers, Seckler says he makes use of three sources of information: date from a psychiatric evaluation, data from an individual clinical interview and data from a background investigation.
“You're looking for indicators, not just in sexual behavior, but evidence or problems with judgment and impulse control,” Seckler says. “For instance, someone who's had a lot of fights … there is a likelihood of problems with impulse control and poor judgment.”
Understanding that Sharda has been accused of a crime, and not yet found guilty, the Police Department can benefit from being open with the public about what happened, how the department is handling it and even going so far as to review the processes used to screen and check a prospective police officers. That is the suggestion from retired Chicago suburb Police Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith, who is a partner with her husband, Dave, in Dave Smith & Associates. The two will be in Worcester Saturday, March 15 to present their program “The Winning Mind” at Clark University. Betsy Smith is a 29-year veteran of the Naperville, Ill. Police Department and has a website, www.femaleforces.com. She is a contributing writer to different publications and websites, including www.policelink.monster.com, where she once posted an article titled “Surviving the Police Background Investigation.”
“The first thing I'd do is be very open with the community, while respecting the victim,” Brantner says. “As much as possible be open with the community and say, 'We had this breach of trust, we're going to deal with this and yes, we're going to sit down and review the testing process, review our background process and review the police officer's case and say, is there something I missed?'”
Worcester Police, as they do in many instances, posted Sharda's arrest on Facebook and held a press conference for the media. In the wake of an incident in where a person expected to keep the peace is charged with breaking it, Brantner says a police department needs to rebuild its trust with the community.
“As someone who wore a badge and gun for 29 years, that makes me sick,” she says of the Sharda case. “What they're going to want to do is build back the public trust. I would hire a professional to speak to all my officers and say, 'This is a bad guy, he's gone, now every one of you has to be on a mission to wipe off the tarnish this guy's put on the badge. Yes, its unfair. But we have to rebuild that trust.”
Smith cites the case of one-time cop hero Ken Hammond in Ogden, Utah. In 2007, Hammond had just finished eating dinner with his wife when he went after a gunman who had just killed five people at a Salt Lake City mall. He exchanged gunfire with 18-year-old Sulejman Talovic. A SWAT team ultimately arrived and killed the suspect. Hammond received national recognition for his exploits, but just two years later, in 2009, he landed in jail for an alleged sexual encounter with a 17-year-old girl in 2005. Like Rajat, Hammond was in uniform at the time of the incident.
There is, Smith, acknowledges, no way of knowing for sure just how a prospective police officer may act once hired. In Worcester's case, she says it appears due diligence was followed and that there may have been no way to predict his behavior. As for background checks on officers returning to the force after having been away, Smith says her department once laid off six cops, all of whom later returned.
“They did not have to go through the testing process, again,” she says, adding that during the initial hiring process, a department is planning to have the officer for 20-30 years. “That's why you have a guy go through all the initial testing.”
There is, Hazelhurst says, only so much a police department can do.
“We are a large department. Nothing is foolproof,” he says. “That applies to the public and private sector. I think we do an excellent job [vetting candidates]. We go through a lot of candidates to get to who goes through the academy. We put a lot of effort into [screening]. That doesn't mean it's foolproof.”
After all, Seckler says, the process is a human one, which leaves room for risk.
“Reducing the risk to zero is important,” he says. “You want to get it as close to zeros as you possibly can. Dealing with human beings is always going to be a dicey proposition.”