The second in charge at the Boston Police Department took a leave of absence yesterday amid questions over whether he inappropriately pressured the head of the city's Police Academy to overlook a suspected affair between a drill instructor and a female recruit, say two public officials.
Robert P. Dunford, 64, a tough-talking Dorchester native who has risen through the ranks to become the sometimes controversial superintendent in chief, allegedly intervened on behalf of a friend, creating what one official described as a "complicated mess."
At the center of the controversy is the department's Police Academy in Hyde Park, where a drill instructor, Officer Paul Downey, was believed to have been engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a female recruit.
When the commander of the academy, Deputy Superintendent Marie L. Donahue, moved to discipline Downey, Dunford might have applied pressure on her to overlook any transgression, said the two public officials briefed on the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Edward F. Davis, the police commissioner, confirmed last night that the Internal Affairs Division is investigating.
"There's an active investigation into alleged improprieties at the academy, and we are pursuing all leads to have this wrapped up in short order," Davis said.
One public official said that the investigation is being conducted with help from the city's corporation counsel.
Dunford did not return calls seeking comment. Donahue declined to comment, and Downey could not be reached.
According to the officials, when Donahue began suspecting an affair between Downey and the recruit, she placed Downey on desk duty. But she soon got a call from Dunford, who asked her to restore him to full duty, one of the officials said.
Shortly afterward, department personnel recovered e-mails from department computers that contained communications between Downey and the recruit suggesting, though not proving, an inappropriate relationship, the public officials said.
At about the same time, the department also recovered "in excess of 200 e-mails" between Dunford and Downey, indicating they were friends and that Dunford could have had knowledge of the affair when he allegedly intervened with Donahue, the two officials said.
In addition, some of the e-mails had attachments considered by department members to be insensitive to women, including pictures of scantily clad females, the officials said.
The Boston Police Department has no rule prohibiting fraternization between officers, but Donahue, the commander of the academy, felt it was inappropriate for a drill instructor to have a relationship with a recruit, the officials said. The two would have what one official described as an "imbalance of power," with the recruit expected to obey all orders from an instructor.
Amid the burgeoning investigation, Dunford requested a leave of absence "to step out of the mix," said one of the officials. That leave was granted yesterday.
Neither Dunford nor Downey has been interviewed by department investigators. No conclusions have been reached, and no sanctions, if any, have been determined.
Donahue is still running the Police Academy, Downey has been transferred to a regular precinct, and the recruit, who was not identified by the officials, is now an officer.
Dunford has faced discipline in the past for insensitive behavior. A week after he was promoted to lead the department in July last year, he was reprimanded and ordered to attend sensitivity training after he called a series of sexual assaults in East Boston part of a neighborhood "courting ritual."
He made the remark during a meeting of about 50 officers who were reviewing reports of seven assaults within three months in the rapidly diversifying Italian-American neighborhood, where the percentage of Latino residents has grown to 40 percent.
At the time, Dunford apologized, called the remark "thoughtless and ill-conceived," and said "it in no way reflects who I am as a police officer or as a person."
Dunford, a 38-year veteran , led the city's massive security effort at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and successfully spearheaded crowd control measures during and after high-profile Red Sox and New England Patriots games following efforts in 2004 that left two celebrants dead.
It is unclear how long Dunford will be on leave, but his absence could dramatically affect the department. As superintendent in chief, he oversees both the investigative and patrol divisions. Before Davis promoted him last year, Dunford spent years commanding the patrol division and earned a reputation as a tough task master.
After his insensitive remark last year, police officials said he had no recent incidents of discipline.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has long been close with Dunford, said through a spokeswoman at the time: "Dunford has always had a good record of police work. I support the commissioner in how he will deal with the superintendent on this issue."
Maria Cramer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Donovan Slack can be reached at email@example.com.