I can no longer keep quiet about my termination from the Sumpter Township Police Department. I realize and clearly understand that “Life isn’t always fair.” I have learned to stand up and fight for what is right and to take responsibility for my mistakes and/or wrong-doings as so should others. There hasn’t been one day that has gone by over the last 15 months where I haven’t reflected on my termination from SPD and all the surrounding circumstances.
After more than nine years on the job as a police officer with the Sumpter Township Police Department, Chief Luke forbid me to work my secondary employment which helped me afford the “extras” I found myself up against as a single mother of four kids. Chief Luke made this decision stating he felt the mistakes I was making on the job was a direct cause of me working too much. The real reason I was making mistakes was because of the mental stress I had been experiencing for years as a police officer with Sumpter Township. The mental stress was not from the duties of the job, but from the years of internal mental stress from within the department.
After approximately one year of not being able to work my secondary employment, I fell into a financial crisis. I did not know how to reach out and ask for help, as I have always been the one who helped others. On approximately six occasions I took what totaled approximately $3,000 from our officers’ union “flower fund.” I was the union secretary/treasurer at that time. This fund was from us officers contributing to on a monthly basis. Over the years, this fund was used to help other officers within the department who had financial situations, flowers for funerals, contributions to food packages for needy families within our community in Sumpter Township, etc.
I knew that I would have to pay the money back and come forward with what I had done. I had to find a way to pay back the money and I ended up taking real estate classes and obtaining my real estate license which was eventually approved by Chief Luke.
I saved the $3,000 from a real estate deal and kept it in my personal account as our union was going through executive board member and bank changes. I ended up becoming union president and two other officers became VP and secretary/treasurer. Once this transition happened, I returned the money plus an extra $100 and requested a meeting with the VP and secretary/treasurer where I admitted to them what I had done. I apologized numerous times with sincerity, shame and regret. It was explained that I did not know how to reach out for help from our union members and was embarrassed to be in the financial situation I was in. By this time I had already been going through therapy for over a year to deal with the years of mental stress I had been experiencing from within the police department and to figure out why I was not able to reach out for help from the union members, as what I had done was way out of character for me.
It was agreed upon between the union executive board members that we would handle this within the union and, yes, this was “embezzlement” but as long as I resigned as president, contacted the officers of our union to let them know what I had done and the returned money had been verified then the union was satisfied with this. I was advised by the VP to contact the remaining four officers in our union over the weekend and if they were in agreement of how the executive board members were handling this then it would be considered handled within our union.
I contacted three of the four officers immediately after I returned home from our meeting. I explained exactly what I had done and why and that it was wrong. All three officers advised me that they understood the financial hardship and that they agreed with the executive board members handling this within our union. The officers advised me that they did not think any less of me and if I had reached out and asked for help that they would have certainly agreed to help.
Less than 24 hours after our executive board meeting, I was contacted by the VP ordering me to contact Chief Luke to let him know what I had done as he could not sleep the night before having it on his conscience that this was embezzlement. I advised the VP that we as an executive board agreed the night before that this would be handled within the union and if he wanted to call Luke to go ahead, which he did.
Less then 72 hours later, I was ordered to complete a statement, have union representation and be in Luke’s office for a disciplinary hearing. During my hearing, it was apparent Luke wanted me fired regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Luke asked me what I thought my punishment should be and I responded stating a 30-day unpaid suspension. Luke stated that no one at the department (including the officers of our union even though none of those officers were asked how they felt) wanted me there, that I could never be trusted again and that even if he allowed me to keep my job his concern would be that none of the other officers would back me up out on the street and that would put me in harm’s way of not having proper officer back-up.
Luke advised me that if I attempted to fight to keep my job that it would only take one officer to file criminal charges against me for embezzlement because paying back the money does not change the crime. Luke had a hidden body camera video set up in his office during my hearing which was not known until my termination hearing went to the township board members. A copy of this video was obtained at a later date. I felt intimidated by Luke and threatened by him because I have been well aware of the long negative history he has had toward me since I was hired in 2005.
After my hearing with Luke and before his recommendation was submitted to the township board members at a special meeting requested by Luke, I was ordered to clear out my locker in the locker room, my desk area, turn in my uniforms, firearm, keys, badge and any other department equipment and not to return to the department. I was not put on administrative leave because I was on disability leave at that time from a work-related knee injury.
During the special meeting, we had gone in a closed meeting session where I was allowed a two-week extension due to lack of union representation that did not show up and that Luke sent me his termination recommendation documents just hours before the special township board meeting. During the two weeks I conducted my own investigation to prepare my case to Supervisor John Morgan and the rest of the board members. I had asked Luke in the open forum at the end of the special meeting if he had recorded my disciplinary hearing. Past experience with disciplinary hearings is that Luke usually records the hearing and announces that it is being recorded and it’s visible on his desk. This was not the case for this hearing. Luke stated that he did record it and I asked for a copy of this recording which I obtained from him approximately four to five days later.
During my review of the video, it was clear in the video that Luke used a body camera that was hidden in his office on a top shelf where Lt. Gannon had placed it. Department policy on the Axon Body Camera is against department policy to use the body camera to secretly record other officers within the police department unless it is detrimental to an undercover investigation. This was not an undercover investigation. It was a disciplinary hearing and Luke had already conducted his investigation.
I cannot keep silent any more, being afraid to speak up out of fear Luke would have an officer file formal charges against me for embezzlement, which he did have Sgt. Egerer (not any officer from our police officers’ union) complete a written statement stating she believes she has been a victim of fraud during the time she was in our union. Sgt. Egerer’s statement goes on to state that this is her written statement for criminal charges against me and is willing to press charges and attend court proceedings as needed. To date, Sgt. Egerer has not pressed charges against me as I believe this is because I did not fight to keep my job nor attempt to obtain a police job at another agency.
After the township board members agreed to allow me two weeks to review Luke’s recommendation and obtain whatever information I needed to present to the township board members, I did not present the township board members with information on my case and some improprieties within the Sumpter Police Department and the long history of what I had been going through within the department out of fear Luke would carry out his threats to have me charged criminally. I felt intimidated and threatened by Luke that he would indeed get an officer (Sgt. Egerer) to press charges against me.
If it was the right thing to do to fire me without any regards to the crisis and circumstances surrounding my situation I was in, then why has Officer Salajan been able to keep his job after being arrested for a “Super Drunk” driving accident charge? Why was Officer Salajan not treated the same as I had been and asked to clear out his locker, desk area, etc.? Why did Luke not immediately take his termination recommendation to the township board or request a “special meeting”? According to newspaper articles in the Independent, Officer Salajan also admitted during his arrest that he F*** up after he was caught. How can Luke say I could never be trusted again for what I had done, yet Officer Salajan can be trusted? Luke stated to me that if I had an embezzlement complaint involving a citizen that I would have been all over it and charged that citizen with embezzlement. Wouldn’t this apply to Officer Salajan? How can Luke trust Officer Salajan like he stated to me? How can Officer Salajan go out and arrest other drunk drivers and charge them after his own drunk driving arrest? Luke stated to me that because of what I had done that no other officers wanted to work with me and he feared they would not give me proper back-up. Does this mean that a super drunk driving accident arrest isn’t as serious as what I had done? Why would Luke allow Officer Salajan to remain on the job after knowing besides his super drunk (.24 BAC) arrest that Officer Salajan also possessed/used a medical marijuana card? According to previous newspaper articles in the Independent, the judge presiding over Officer Salajan’s case acknowledges this and asks Officer Salajan if he has ever tried any other “non-narcotic” drug which Officer Salajan clearly states “no”.
Luke was asked during a township board meeting the status of the officer arrested for drunk driving to which he responds that the officer had been strongly disciplined and was back at work (before the disposition of his super drunk driving accident arrest). One would have to wonder how a judge could lower the “super drunk” (.26 & .24 BAC) charge down to an “impaired” charge and 24 months of reporting directly to the judge without having to submit to regular daily PBT’s (at $5 per day) as many other citizens have had to do as part of their probation? One would also have to wonder how come Officer Salajan isn’t required to submit to regular drug testing for the marijuana.
I have finally gained the courage to break my silence because this is wrong! If Luke and Sgt. Egerer want to file criminal charges against me for submitting this article, then I will face this, too. There are many improprieties within the Sumpter Township Police Department that need to be investigated! I would be willing to sit down with the Sumpter Township Supervisor and the board members to address some of these concerns as I had planned to do during my termination hearing but did not out of fear of retaliation from Luke and Sgt. Egerer.
The time has come and these improprieties need to be investigated!
The citizens of Sumpter Township deserve to know the truth of what is going on, what has been going on within their police department.
Editor’s Note: When Chief Luke was asked if he had a comment on why he fired Buccellato, he submitted the following:
“After an internal investigation, I requested Danielle Buccellato’s termination on Feb. 5, 2018. The Board then unanimously approved the termination at a special board meeting on or about Feb. 16, 2018.
“Since I have no idea what the story is about or what’s prompted it now, 15 months after the fact, I have no basis to comment further. Doing so would be irresponsible, in my opinion. I would also never want to violate a former employee’s rights by voluntarily disclosing information which could later be deemed improper in some way.
“Now, if you’re interested in explaining in detail what the story is about, I’m more than willing to delve into it further to see what I can do to assist you in printing a factual account. Please let me know if that’s something you’re interested in.”