- Associated Press - Sunday, September 21, 2014

WEARE, N.H. (AP) - Weare is back in the headlines, and that has usually meant bad news.

The small town’s police chief - hired with high hopes less than a year ago to revamp an embattled department - last week was hit with a domestic violence restraining order after a subordinate accused him of shoving her to the ground after she told his wife about a sexual affair between the two.

It’s the latest blow to a department beset by citizen mistrust, public criticism and lawsuits alleging excessive force and abuse of power. The low point came three months before Chief John Velleca was hired when Weare officers shot to death a drug suspect in a sting that the state’s attorney general criticized as “ill-conceived” and “rash and poorly planned.”

Many in this rural, central New Hampshire town of about 8,800 have had enough.

“They try to get someone in here to make things better and, wow, we’re in the news again,” said Kristen Greaney, as she readied her farm and ice cream stand last week. “Why does a whole town have to suffer because of one person?”

Velleca, 45, was hired after earning high praise in New Haven, Connecticut for turning around a corrupt narcotics unit. On his retirement, Chief Dean Esserman told the New Haven Register that Velleca “has had a remarkable career and been entrusted with some of the most important responsibilities in this police department.”

However, Velleca’s time in New Haven was not problem-free. The newspaper reported several of the detectives under his command filed hostile work environment complaints and the year after he retired as acting chief in 2011, the department paid $20,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit a female detective filed against him.

Velleca did not return an email or messages left on his cellphone and Connecticut home phone numbers. The town administrator and chairman of the board of selectmen also did not return calls.

In Weare, Velleca held open houses at the police department, instituted better training for officers, got rid of the sergeant who orchestrated the fatal drug sting, and hired a consultant on community policing. He said from the outset he was on a “no-fail” mission.

Now he is on paid leave for a month and the attorney general’s is exploring whether to conduct a criminal investigation.

“They need a new chief,” said resident Roland Spencer. “As far as the police department, it’s in chaos.”

Deputy Chief Sean Kelly said the department of a dozen officers is operating “as normally as you could possibly expect.” He said he fully expects Velleca to return.

“He is, by the very foundation of our judicial system, cloaked in innocence until the court says otherwise,” Kelly said. “He is the chief of police and remains the chief of police.”

Kelly emphasized that the only side of the story anyone has heard to date is the one told by Jennifer Posteraro, Velleca’s administrative assistant.

Posteraro is on leave and has no listed phone number or address. A lawyer who is advising her did not return calls seeking comment and the lawyer who filed the sexual harassment lawsuit did not immediately return a call.

Posteraro, 40, said in an affidavit filed in Hillsboro District Court last week that she had a “brief” affair with Velleca this summer and that his behavior toward her since was “increasingly volatile and erratic.”

She says Velleca - in uniform and driving a cruiser - came to her home on Sept. 11 and took her cellphone out of her hands as she was calling Velleca’s wife. When she pursued Velleca to his cruiser to get her phone, he twice knocked her to the ground, she said.

Last year, Posteraro filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against her a former employer and supervisor claiming she was taunted and yelled at despite diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression stemming from a previous violent relationship that included sexual assault. Lawyers for the defendants deny the allegations.

Barbara Hibbard, who’s lived in Weare for 35 years, is tired of all the negative news. She paused a long time when asked if Velleca could remain chief.

“I don’t think so,” she replied. “I think the town’s been burned too many times.”

___

Associated Press researcher Susan James in New York City contributed to this report.

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