MIDDLETOWN, PA — Middletown Police Officer Mark Hovan is being suspended for 10 days not because he attended church while on duty, but because he violated a direct order, borough Police Chief George Mouchette said in an email to the Press & Journal on Friday.
The chief added that Hovan, a 20-year veteran of the department, had previously been advised that if his spiritual obligations “required” he attend church while on duty, he could request “appropriate time off to attend.”
“He never requested the time off,” Mouchette told the Press & Journal.
Hovan during an earlier interview told the Press & Journal that his constitutional right to practice freedom of religion was being “infringed upon” by the chief, adding “they (the department) made no accommodation at all for me.”
The email was Mouchette’s first public comment since borough council approved Hovan’s 10-day suspension on a vote of 4-1, with Councilor Diana McGlone abstaining on what she said was advice from Solicitor Adam Santucci, during council’s meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 5. McGlone did not respond to a request for additional comment from the Press & Journal after the meeting.
Voting no was Councilor Robert Reid, who as the borough’s former long-time mayor had been in charge of the police department for many years.
“I think there should be some action taken, but I can’t go along with the 10 days,” Reid said.
The only other councilor commenting was Ben Kapenstein, who said his vote to support the 10-day suspension is “because the chief sees the day to day, I go with what he recommends.”
Timeline of events
Hovan in an interview before council’s action told the Press & Journal that he was being disciplined for having attended church services in the borough while on duty on Aug. 15.
Hovan in the interview said that Mouchette had called him into the chief’s office on Jan. 8, 2017, shortly after Mouchette had learned that Hovan had attended services earlier that same day while on duty at Seven Sorrows in Middletown.
A retired New York City police detective, Mouchette had been on the job since Jan. 5, 2017, when he was sworn into office as interim chief by Mayor James H. Curry III to replace John Bey, who had resigned effective Dec. 30.
Borough council on Aug. 7 voted to make Mouchette the permanent chief.
Hovan told the Press & Journal that Mouchette gave him a letter saying that Hovan could no longer attend church while on duty, and that Hovan was to “never conduct personal business on Middletown Police Department time,” according to Hovan.
However, Mouchette disputes that claim in his statement to the Press & Journal.
“It is not true that Officer Hovan was told he could not attend church services,” the chief said. “In fact, he was specifically told that if the needs of the community and the department allowed he could attend church.”
“He (Hovan) was previously advised that if he was required to attend church services during his shift, he needed to request appropriate time off to attend. He never requested the time off,” Mouchette said.
Hovan said that after attending church while on duty on Aug. 15 he got a call from Mouchette, asking “were you in church today?” Hovan told the chief that he was.
“I never lied about it,” Hovan said, acknowledging that he had disobeyed a direct order from Mouchette to no longer attend church while on duty.
Shortly afterward, another officer in the department other than Mouchette conducted an internal investigation into the matter, according to Hovan.
“Neglect of Duty/Inefficiency”
On Oct. 27, Hovan received a letter from Mouchette detailing four separate charges of “Neglect of Duty/Inefficiency.”
One charge says that Hovan refused to obey proper orders from a superior. A second charge says that Hovan failed “to properly supervise subordinates, or to prefer disciplinary charges, or to take other appropriate disciplinary action.”
The third charge says that Hovan failed “to comply with any order directives, regulations, etc., oral or written and also those of a superior.” The fourth charge cites Hovan’s “failure to properly patrol district or sector and make assigned reports to headquarters, unauthorized absence from assignment, failure to respond to radio call.”
Three of the four charges specifically refer to Hovan having attended church services on Aug. 15, “while on duty without authorization despite previous written orders that you not attend such services while on duty.”
The fourth charge only refers to Hovan having “an unauthorized absence from your assignment for at least an hour” on Aug. 15.
The Oct. 27 letter said that Hovan was to meet with Mouchette in the chief’s office at 7 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 7 in order for Hovan to have “the opportunity to respond” to the charges detailed in the letter.
Hovan told the Press & Journal that he attended the meeting. Mouchette’s recommendation for a 10-day suspension went to borough council, which acted on Dec. 5.
“I go to church regularly”
Hovan said he always had his radio with him while attending church on duty, and he told the Press & Journal that he had “never” missed a call because of being in church.
He told the Press & Journal that he had attended church services while on duty throughout his nearly 20-year career.
Hovan, who wears a small cross on his uniform, described himself as a devout Catholic who said he found it necessary to attend church on duty on occasion so that he would not miss the Holy Days of Obligation on the church calendar.
The practice had been encouraged by some former chiefs as a way of improving community relations, said Hovan, a former detective who was chief of the borough police department from June 2012 until he resigned the position in January 2013.
Hovan previously was a Dauphin County probation officer for five years. He served two years of active duty in the U.S. Army and nine years in the Army Reserves as an infantry captain. He began his career on the Middletown force as a patrol officer, then served as a K-9 officer and a detective before becoming chief in 2012.
On the day Middletown pinned the police chief’s badge on Hovan — June 25, 2012 — he went to church, according to a Press & Journal article about the swearing-in ceremony.
He went, the article stated, “not to ask God if he was doing the right thing, for ‘there was no doubt when they offered it that I wanted it,’ he admitted. But to thank God for the opportunity, and for future guidance in making decisions once he became the borough’s top cop.”
Hovan’s priest attended the swearing-in. He thanked his parents, his young daughter, his girlfriend and his co-workers — but first, he thanked Jesus Christ. “My savior,’’ he explained.
“I’ll put everything into this job,’’ he told the crowd at the swearing-in. That “everything’’ includes a strong faith — “I go to church regularly,’’ he said in 2012.
He “violated a direct order’
Mouchette in his statement said that a matrix on the police contract calls for a 10-day suspension when an officer “fails to obey an order from a supervisor.”
“The police union negotiated that matrix and we are obligated to comply with it. Officer Hovan violated a direct order, and he received the penalty called for,” the chief said.
“We owe a duty to the citizens of Middletown to be responsible stewards of taxpayer money, and we cannot authorize our officers to attend to personal matters while on duty,” the chief added in his statement. “We need our officers to be patrolling and performing their police duties while on the clock.”
Hovan suggested in a previous conversation with the Press & Journal that the punishment was related to him being president of the police association.
James H. Curry III, who as borough mayor has been in charge of the police department since coming into office in January 2014, declined comment after the council’s Dec. 5 vote except to say “I agree with the recommendation” from Mouchette.
Santucci also would not answer any questions, saying the suspension is a “personnel matter.”