As demands on New Hampshire cops grow, the politics of police funding remain the same

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Sen. Maggie Hassan leads a Senate Emerging Threats and Spending Oversight Subcommittee field hearing at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester on March 14. Courtesy of Office of Senator Maggie Hassan

Counting Cops, Part 5

Special 5-part series produced by Concord Monitor, a member of


At a March U.S. Senate field hearing in Manchester, U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas addressed the panel of law enforcement officials who had just spent hours telling him, fellow Rep. Annie Kuster and U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan about drug trafficking in the state.

The agents and officials painted a bleak picture: a limitless supply of drugs from Mexico and the dark web was flooding New Hampshire, set to cause overdose deaths and overwhelm police departments that had a “critical shortage” of officers.

They wanted more money and more manpower.

“Just about every problem that we have in society falls in front of our police officers and law enforcement here in New Hampshire. We continue to ask you all to do more, to take greater risks and to respond,” Pappas said.

Then Pappas said he had good news: appropriations from the Community Oriented Policing Services Program would be sending federal dollars New Hampshire’s way once again to support local departments’ staffing. On top of that, he supports the Invest to Protect Act, which will help police departments pay officers overtime as well as recruitment bonuses for new hires and retention bonuses for veteran officers to remain on the force.

“We’ve got to continue to grow those numbers, because we know the threat is evolving, the threat continues to grow,” Pappas said. “You can’t put a price tag on someone’s life.”

From law enforcement officers in rural parts of the state to police command staff say they lack the resources to carry out the expanding duties that communities ask them to perform. Police question whether they should be tasked with resolving mental health crises or dealing with the fallout from the opioid epidemic.

Advocates of police reform ask the same questions from a different angle – could some of the money directed towards policing be better spent addressing mental health services or drug treatment? Yet, the political response they frequently see at every level of government is to send more money at departments to grow their size.

‘We can’t just arrest our way out of these issues’

Concord officer Paige Salmon began one 3 p.m. shift in March by responding to a call about a potential suicide. After talking to neighbors, Salmon and other officers entered the house and brought the person safely to Concord Hospital.

“The mental health system is so understaffed,” Salmon said later while driving her cruiser down Loudon Road. “We deal with a lot of mental health calls because there aren’t enough people to properly help them.”

Beginning this year, a 24/7 emergency mental health phone line – 988 – went into effect in New Hampshire. Thanks to a state contract, all 10 of the state’s community health centers will maintain mobile crisis response teams. Crisis teams already existed at the three centers in Manchester, Concord and Nashua.

Still, even with Riverbend Community Mental Health Center’s mobile crisis unit in Concord, a worried friend will call 911 about a potential suicide first, Salmon said. Riverbend workers often ask police to come along too.

Although people believe the role of police is to solve crime, that’s not actually what police do, at least not successfully, argues Shima Baughman, a professor of criminal law at the University of Utah College of Law, in “Crime and the Mythology of Police.”

“The common perception in America is that police’s primary function is solving crimes and preventing crimes and dealing with the bad guys,” Baughman said in an interview. In reality, only about two to 10 percent of their time is spent dealing with crime, while the rest includes responding to mental health issues, meditating neighbor disputes, or dealing with family crises.

That leaves less time for criminal investigations and creates a mismatch between officers’ day-to-day jobs and their training.

“They’re trained for a job that they’re not actually doing and they’re not trained for a job that they’re actually doing,” she said. “I’m not surprised when I see police shootings because that’s what they’re told to do.”

It’s unclear whether increasing the size of police departments contributes to public safety.

“The research on the number of officers and whether increased officers make the public safer is very mixed,” Baughman said, although she said the presence of police officers or private security officers in an area does lead to decreases in property crimes.

Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg fields questions from media regarding a police standoff in May of 2021 on Union Street in Manchester. File Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

Since he became a police officer in 1998, Manchester Police Chief Allen Aldenberg said that calls for service and critical incidents driven by mental health and substance abuse have increased. He said four or five years ago, Manchester police joined with community partners and city leaders to create long-term partnerships to address mental health and affordable housing shortages.

“You’re not going to arrest your way out of homelessness. You’re not going to be able to police the homeless day in and day out. Because you just kind of drain my resources, you’re going to task us with something that we’re really not subject matter experts on,” he said.

It’s a refrain that echoes across departments.

“Mental illness is not a crime, homelessness is not a crime. We can’t just arrest our way out of these issues,” said Hollis Chief Joseph Hoebeke.

In Portsmouth, Chief Mark Newport said the majority of police calls revolve around someone struggling with a mental health issue or addiction.

“The profession has changed from when I started here of chasing bad people to we’ve become social workers that happen to be armed,” Newport said. “We get called to handle calls that there’s no one else to respond to.”

Londonderry Police Chief William Hart estimated that more than half of the non-traffic calls officers respond to are for people suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues. Hart said the department has adapted, doing things like declining to enforce marijuana possession and connecting people arrested for drug crimes with treatment resources.

Still, without a robust healthcare system that takes care of everyone, even the uninsured, Hart feels his hands are tied.

“If our only tools are handcuffs and a gun, how do you come up with ways to solve that problem?” he said.

Advocates agree

Advocates for police reform or diverting police funds to social services agree that police should not be the first line of defense for inadequate mental health treatment, a lack of housing or addiction.

Tshiela

Ronelle Tshiela, a Black Lives Matter Manchester co-founder and law student at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law who was a member of the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency, agrees that Manchester asks too much of its police.

“We’re asking them to respond to a mental health crisis, for example, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense because they don’t have the proper training in that area,” Tshiela said.

She would like to see that money spent differently, to support solutions that address root causes of crime like housing and healthcare. That goes even for departments that have implemented LEACT reforms, like crisis intervention training for officers.

“Regardless of what reforms are in place, I don’t think it would be harmful to look at each and every one of these budgets and decide what is best for the community. And I think in a lot of instances that would be reducing the size of the police force,” Tshiela said.

Another LEACT member, New Hampshire Public Defender attorney Julian Jefferson, agrees with Aldenberg that demands on Manchester police have been growing, including homelessness and substance abuse. To him, the city’s police department is the only tool available to tackle those huge problems.

“I agree with the chief that his department does need to grow, because we’re relying on them to be the primary responder,” Jefferson said. “That needs to change.”

Jefferson sees a huge number of felony drug possession cases as a public defender and views prosecuting those drug users as a waste of law enforcement and court system resources.

Jefferson

“Every single time we’re responding to public safety, the knee-jerk reaction is just to make police departments bigger,” Jefferson said. “It’s really a comprehensive approach that comes from all levels of government.”

Jefferson said when he was on the commission, he and other advocates faced pushback from the law enforcement members that outnumbered them when they bought up revisiting the concept of school resource officers, a category of cop that has grown in New Hampshire and nationwide.

Final recommendations included more training for school resource officers and transparency about their role, but the conversation about their necessity never got off the ground, Jefferson said.

Two years ago, activists in some cities – including Manchester, Concord and Lebanon – asked their local governments to reduce police funding, after protests against George Floyd’s murder sparked nationwide unrest and an examination of the role of police in society. They were largely unsuccessful. With little pause, city leaders in Concord and Manchester voted to expand their departments instead.

Police priorities take center stage

Knaack

ACLU-NH Policy Director Frank Knaack has been frustrated by what he sees as a discrepancy between what police say they want and how they weigh in on state political issues like bail reform or alternative approaches to curbing addiction. “They’re trying to talk out of both sides of their mouths,” Knaack said.

One example he cited was marijuana legalization. After Rhode Island legalized recreational marijuana use in May, New Hampshire became the only New England state where the drug is still illegal for adults. Black people were 4.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2020 than white people in New Hampshire, with disparities even higher in Concord and Manchester.

Right before a vote on a marijuana legalization bill this April, state senators introduced police chiefs from around the state who filled the Senate stairs and auditorium to oppose the legislation. The bill failed.

Similar dynamics appear at the local level, where attempts to critically evaluate police priorities can meet with resistance in city council meetings, including in Concord.

In June, Ward 10 Councilor Zandra Rice Hawkins pushed the Concord City Council to consider redirecting funding for two additional police officers toward resources to address mental health or homelessness.

A back-and-forth with At-Large City Councilor Fred Keach, a former police officer, highlighted that while both city leaders believe Concord Police are fielding many calls related to mental health crises, homelessness and substance abuse, Keach believes police officers are equipped to handle those issues and prevent crime. Rice Hawkins doesn’t agree.

She said after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Concord residents had asked the city to re-imagine public safety. Rice Hawkins said that work remains unfinished.

“These are really big conversations that a lot of communities have grappled with and it’s not surprising that it’s hard to think about how this would look differently. What we have on our side is that there are models that are working and we should explore whether they’re right for Concord,” Rice Hawkins said in an interview.

She cited CAHOOTS, a crisis assistance program in Eugene, Oregon, funded by the police department. Between 3 percent and 8 percent of 911 calls are diverted to mental health workers, saving police time while sending trained clinicians to deliver care.

Two Seacoast approaches

The cities of Dover and Rochester have sought to hire new non-officers to try to address some of the root causes of the problems that police encounter.

In February, the Dover Police Department hired a social worker, Kaitlin Jones, to connect people who come into contact with police to community resources and address housing instability and untreated mental health issues.

Jones said she has seen successes in her work so far, as she helps people who police see as “frequent flyers” navigate complex webs of social service resources.

“I think every police department should have social workers. It’s a relief to the community and it’s a relief to the officers,” she said. “It helps break down those barriers and helps break down the stigma around police officers.”

Although she is not a law enforcement officer, her office is within the police department, something that she said has not been an obstacle to building trust.

Rochester took a different approach in creating the first welfare department outreach position in the state, Rochester welfare director Todd Marsh said.

“Although I do commend Dover’s approach, a factor for us was that there are folks out there that have some unfortunate distrust of police departments,” Marsh said, referring to both clients and social service advocates.

Marsh hopes the person in the new position will work closely with the police and fire departments, but also free up emergency resources by allowing the outreach worker to perform tasks like wellness checks.

“This is a way not just to try harder with the same but to try differently,” Marsh said.



These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org. 

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Cassidy Jensen

Cassidy Jensen is a reporter for the Concord Monitor.