Harrison launches investigation of police chief Michael Olsey sex harassment claims

HARRISON – It took elected officials three weeks before they met to discuss the investigation into sexual harassment claims against the town police chief.

When they finally convened, they opted not to suspend Chief Michael Olsey during the investigation, led by the town legal department.

Detective Derka Abbate filed a written complaint against Chief Michael Olsey just before Christmas, but Abbate wasn’t called in for an interview until Thursday. She had been out of the office since the complaint was filed and returned to work Monday.

Abbate‘s attorney, Joshua Moskovitz, said he was disappointed by her interview Thursday by the town attorney‘s office.

“I was hopeful that the interview would go well and relieve some concerns that I had about how they would approach it, but to me it just smacked of retaliation,” he said Thursday night.

Moskovitz said Harrison attorneys demanded that Abbate turn over her town-issued cellphone as part of the investigation, and that a police officer followed her home to take it from her.

“I found it deeply troubling,” he said. “We were treated very much like we had already filed a lawsuit and they were the defense attorneys, or like Det. Abbate was the one being investigated.”

Moskovitz said the town indicated that Olsey would be interviewed at some point. He said he‘s not sure if Abbate will pursue a lawsuit.

Among Abbate‘s allegations are that the chief texted her sexual rap lyrics, had her perform personal errands for him while she was on duty and in one incident grabbed her buttocks.

“I don’t want it to be ignored,” she said of her hopes for the investigation. “I’m looking for him to be held accountable for his actions, basically.”

Olsey did not respond to multiple phone messages seeking comment.

In her complaint, obtained by The Journal News/lohud, Abbate said but never came forward for fear it could affect her husband’s chances of getting a promotion within the department.

Her husband, Officer Richard Abbate, was in line for the job of sergeant but didn‘t get it when promotions were announced the same week of the complaint. Detective Abbate said when her husband didn’t get a promotion in December, she was emboldened to speak out.

Those promotions have been the subject of an internal rift within the department. Since they were given out, several anonymous letters have been sent to elected officials criticizing the process, and outlining other alleged wrongdoing.

The emails sent since the wrongdoing accusations were made, specifically one with the subject heading “corruption,” are now under review by town officials, who have repeatedly refused to discuss the accusations or the investigation.

Town Supervisor Ron Belmont and members of the town board have yet to speak publicly on the matter. A town attorney said in December that to ensure fairness, there‘d be no further comment until the investigation is over.

Department‘s latest problem

This is the latest problem for a department that has had its share of internal strife and instability in the last decade.

The accusations have also linked Harrison to a nationwide discussion about the treatment of women in the workplace, and in fields such as law enforcement, where they are under-represented.

In Harrison, there are four female police officers in a department that has 67 budgeted officers within the 2018 budget.

When asked to confirm the number of female officers, the town‘s personnel department required that The Journal News/lohud file a formal request through the state Freedom of Information Law. The town clerk‘s office said on Thursday that the request was being reviewed by the law department.

What does the complaint say?

Detective Abbate said she has been with the Harrison Police Department for 14 years, the last six of which she claims has included harassment by Olsey. She said the harassment started when she and her husband began dating.

Olsey is accused of texting Abbate sexual rap lyrics and making sexual comments and jokes around her. When Olsey was a lieutenant, he asked Abbate to sleep with him even though she was married, she alleged in her complaint.

In October, according to the complaint, Abbate was assigned to dress up as a character from the Paw Patrol cartoon and take pictures with children and staff.

When Olsey stood next to her he grabbed her buttocks and said, “Oh, is that your tail,” Abbate said.

“In a very angry tone I said, ‘NOT FUNNY,‘ and he just laughed,” she said.

Abbate also accused Olsey of ordering her to help him with personal matters while she was on duty:

  • In December 2016 Olsey slammed and threw his wife‘s laptop after a disagreement with her, according to the complaint. Abbate said he told her to get it fixed, and she ended up driving the hard drive to a company in New Jersey to try to recover data, all while she was on duty.
  • Olsey owns the laundromat Harrison Soap & Suds at 222 Harrison Ave. In July, a credit card machine at the business broke, and he had Abbate get it fixed while she was on duty, according to the complaint. She said she spent two hours on the phone to get the problem resolved.
  • In November, Olsey had Abbate and two other police department employees go to his Harrison house to install five surveillance cameras outside his home, according to the complaint. All three were on duty at the time, she said.

“Ever since I was a little girl growing up in New York City I wanted to be a police officer,” she said in the complaint. “I had this big idea that I can change the world by protecting people. I took an oath to serve and protect, but how can I protect anyone if I can‘t even protect myself? It‘s a sad thing when dreams are shattered by those who you are supposed to trust.”

Olsey . He replaced former Chief Anthony Marraccini, who was suspended with pay in September 2016, days after town officials for time off he wasn‘t entitled to.

Marraccini resigned while suspended, within three weeks of his suspension.

The timing of the sexual harassment charges came before holidays and before the town board swore in its newest member, Democrat Frank Gordon at the beginning of this year. The board‘s first meeting of 2018, on Jan. 4, was canceled due to snow.

This Tuesday, the board met, but the chief and town attorney declined comment to the media.

Although elected officials hadn‘t formally discussed the complaint or interviewed Abbate or witnesses, there were discussions including communication between a Harrison attorney and Abbate‘s lawyer.

Promotions widened rift

The results of police promotions in December not only apparently sparked Abbate to file her complaint, but led to some criticisms and accusations over the process.

Several anonymous letters circulated appearing to have been written by department members or police insiders. The Journal News/lohud also interviewed several people about the promotions process whose identities are being withheld due to fears of retaliation.

A few of the choices for who should be promoted — and shouldn’t be promoted — have become an internal talking point within the department and now by elected officials. The police union president Anthony Salov didn’t return a phone call requesting an interview.

Richard Abbate finished second on a test to become sergeant. The first and third on the test were not interested, according to Moskovitz, the Abbates’ attorney. Three others were promoted to sergeant.

Moskovitz said he sent a letter to town elected officials and attorney Frank Allegretti asking to reconsider a promotion for Richard Abbate, but he hadn’t heard back. He said he believed the town may have violated civil service law, which requires consideration of the top three on the list.

The attorney said his clients would consider any legal remedy necessary over both the harassment claims and promotion.

“At this point, I cannot say whether a lawsuit will be necessary,” he said. “That will depend on the town.”

Previous problems

Previous infighting was visible starting in 2007, when roughly 13 loosely-related civil lawsuits were filed against police leadership, mostly by members within the department. They included a lawsuit accusing former department leadership of installing a surveillance camera in the men‘s locker room.

All of those suits were dismissed or ended favorably for the town. 

More controversy followed in February 2009, when some officers were found to have engaged in lewd talk about the former supervisor of the town on Facebook.

Two of the sergeants promoted to lieutenant for this year were Michael DiLauria and Frank Massaro, who were disciplined as part of the Facebook scandal. The officers and two others ridiculed and joked about sex with then-Supervisor Joan Walsh, who was 74 at the time. 

Although Walsh pushed to fire them, they were disciplined but continued on in the department, moving up the ranks since. Lieutenant jobs are budgeted for $139,085 in the 2018 budget.

Part of a national discussion

The situation in Harrison has propelled the town into discussion of the national “Me Too” movement.

Male-dominated fields such as law enforcement are prone to higher rates of sexual harassment, said Kathy Spillar, executive director of the California-based Feminist Majority Foundation, a group that has studied imbalanced gender ratios.

An effort to increase female representation pushing 30 percent is necessary to dispel the notion that policing and other jobs are “men’s work,” she said. The alternative, she said, is facing payouts for harassment on the job as claims ramp up.

“In departments that don’t deal with that culture and change it as rapidly as possible are going to suffer a lot in these next few years,” she said. “The big secret is out there in a big way that you don’t have to put up with this and I think women are increasingly saying ‘we’re not putting up with it.’”

The Harrison Town Board is now also fully male, after former Councilwoman Marlane Amelio left office at the end of 2017. The town’s legal department has four attorneys, including Andrea Rendo, who was the representative of the town who spoke with the Abbates’ attorney.

The board acts as police commissioners and will make the ultimate decision on what to do after the results of the investigation.

No time frame has been set for completion of the case, but under the town’s laws for sexual harassment Abbateshould be kept informed of any action in the investigation and be notified in writing of the results.

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