MANCHESTER, NH – Although it was not the first time the Manchester Police Department has called the community together to talk about pressing issues, the January 15 public forum at the PAL Center, which drew about 120 citizens and police officers, had a different sense of urgency.
It was a call to action – for residents of the Queen City and also for its police department, those tasked with serving and protecting her subjects.
Chief David Mara, wearing a department-issued pullover sweater, says someone told him he looked like Mister Rogers. “I take that as a compliment,” he says, going on to explain why he organized the forum for the people in his neighborhood.
“The idea started from watching the news reports – on Ferguson, on New York. I went to one of the New York officer’s funeral, and on the ride up and back I was thinking, boy, I don’t want this happening in Manchester. How can we prevent it?” Mara says.
“I’m not talking about the specific acts,” he says, “or who’s right or wrong – although that’s very important to me.”
He’s referring to the aftershocks of news from Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot an unarmed black man dead in the street; and from New York, where a man died following an arrest that included being wrestled to the ground by police and placed in a chokehold, followed by the execution-style killing of two police officers by a gunman who claimed retribution for lack of “justice,” after grand juries failed to indict police in either the Missouri or New York City incidents.
“I’m talking about the divisions between police departments and citizens,” Mara said.
Mara was joined by a panel assembled to lead the discussion, “What’s Race Got to Do With It: Policing in a Diverse Community,” which included retired South Hampton Police Chief Eddie Edwards; Andrew Smith, Disproportionate Minority Contact Coordinator for the State of New Hampshire-Division for Juvenile Services; and Manchester Police Commissioners Woullard Lett and Eva Castillo. Moderator for the event was Dr. Dottie Morris, Chief Officer for Diversity and Multiculturalism at Keene State College.
Below is a 10-minute video that provides a window in to the three-hour forum, which included breakaway sessions where residents and police officers sat together and discussed their individual concerns, and then each table came up with one take-away item, which was shared after the group reconvened.
Some of the points raised by residents included the need for the city’s police department to racially reflect the city it serves with more minority officers; better understanding of the cultural differences for some immigrants, who arrive in New Hampshire from countries where police are feared; and more opportunities to break bread and build bridges together as a community.
But the video is only where solutions begin for Manchester. The consensus among attendees was that the conversation needs to continue. Click play before you read on.
During the first half of the forum panelists took a few moments to thank those who came and to encouraged them to keep the discussion going, beyond the one-night discussion.
Lett, who also serves as President of the Manchester NAACP, said the forum offered a unique opportunity for citizens to have their say.
“Most of us who drive have been stopped by a police officer, the blue lights come on and it always creates a certain level of anxiety. And when the police officer comes to the window you don’t have opportunity to debate the issues. Hopefully, we can do that now, and we can leave today in a better place than when we came,” Lett said.
Edwards, who is also former director of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, offered a little personal background to underscore the importance of positive community influence, and the importance of role models, and giving back.
“You’re looking at the son of a father who was a drug dealer, a crack user, who ultimately lost his life to drugs. He beat my mother on a regular basis, and I consider myself a child survivor of domestic violence. My older brother is in prison for murder,” said Edwards.
“I had opportunity because of my grandparents, and people in my community – including the police department,” said Edwards, recalling how he looked up to the school resource officers, who he sensed genuinely cared about the students. Edwards said all that helped inspire him to serve his community, and after a stint in the U.S. Navy he left his home state of Georgia and settled in New Hampshire. Twenty-three years later, he rose to the rank of police chief.
“I don’t think that’s possible in many places, but it’s possible in New Hampshire because if you’re willing to work hard, your community is willing to serve you, too. We are different here than Ferguson and New York. If we were in those places we wouldn’t be having this discussion. I believe we can serve as an example for the rest of the country,” Edwards said.
Castillo moved to the U.S. from Venezuela in 1976, and then to Manchester in 1984. She said she had no relationship with the police – good or bad – until Mara became chief.
“I lived in the city since 1984 and never knew the name of a chief of police, until I met Chief Mara. We came to talk to him because we were concerned about the undocumented being stopped by police here, and there was some confusion and misunderstanding. From there we built a relationship and we’ve been meeting every single month since then,” Castillo said.
“Our chief decided to start building relationships with us and allow us to express our fears and our frustrations, and everything negative we felt. It took us over a year to get over that hump of the complaining phase, but now I am a police commissioner, I feel safe in this community, and I have a police force I can feel proud of, that represents my interests,” Castillo said.
Mara and Edwards serve as co-chairs of the State of New Hampshire Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Advisory Group on Juvenile Justice. Mara was honored in November for his leadership on diversity issues.
DMC is the measure of racial disparity among juvenile offenders in the juvenile justice system and refers to the “disproportion” of racial and ethnic minorities at all points within the system – from arrest to referrals, adjudication, diversion, detention, confinement, and into the adult court and adult corrections systems.
According to a Sept. 2013 DMC Assessment, key contributors to DMC are misinterpretation of cultural differences and procedures and policies in place that can lead to negative outcomes in high-minority neighborhoods – reduced educational opportunities, low income, high unemployment, and drug infestation.
Smith, who coordinates New Hampshire’s DMC efforts, took a moment during the break-out sessions to talk about what sets New Hampshire apart from other police departments around the country – in particular, Hillsborough County, where there continues to be a downward trend in DMC in relation to juvenile arrests.
He gives all the credit to Mara and Edwards for their efforts in leading the charge when it comes to changing the way police departments interact with communities, and the policies in place.
“Chief Mara is the best in the country at what he does,” Smith said. “There are 47 other coordinators in the country who would give their first born to have police chiefs like Chief Mara and Chief Edwards.”
Andrew C. Smith talks about New Hampshire’s strides in juvenile justice policy and procedure.