Chief: In the aftermath of a senseless murder, ‘every neighborhood matters’

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Manchester Chief Nick Willard addresses the media during a Monday press conference regarding the status of the Ray Street murder investigation.

MANCHESTER, NH –The following exchange took place between two residents of the city via Facebook Monday, one day after news of a violent murder on a quiet street in one of the more affluent sections of Manchester:

Q: Why must we wait for tragedy to strike to “step up patrols?”

A: “Because tragedy wasn’t striking the North End.”

Theirs was not the only such exchange visible on city-centric sites. Others commented that their neighborhood had seen a dozen acts of violence, from stabbings to shootings, and they claimed no community meetings were called.

Others speculated that there had to be more to the seemingly random and senseless murder of Denise Robert, 62, on a quiet Sunday night:

  • Had she angered a driver on her way to the church where she parked before taking an evening stroll, and become the victim of road rage?
  • Was she a random victim of a gang initiation?
  • Was there something else in her past that led to what is otherwise an unfathomable scenario, that a well-liked and hard-working woman doing something ordinary can be gunned down and left for dead, without a witness?
  • Was there something the police were not telling the public?

Speculation is part of the human condition, and few understand that as acutely as Manchester Police Chief Nick Willard, who served for years as a detective before rising to the rank of chief. He says perception can be misleading when it comes to police action and reaction, especially after violent crime paralyzes a neighborhood.

“I think the collective community’s lack of memory is partly the reason for talk like that.  For instance, we had a similar homicide on the West Side five years ago, Pablo Samniego was shot and left dead in the street. All we had was that someone was seen driving away in a blue car. It was the same investigative strategy then. We held a press conference and met with the family,” said Willard, who served as Captain of the detective unit at that time.

Police outreach to the public is following the same blueprint following the murder Sunday of Denise Robert, who  was shot and killed on Ray Street just before 9 p.m.

“That’s the reason we held a press conference, to put information out and to get information in,” Willard said. “If we had a viable suspect, even though people complain that law enforcement doesn’t put out enough information, we do that to preserve the information and evidence for trial.”

But there is not yet a “viable suspect” in this investigation, based on the initial information gathered by law enforcement.

Willard bristled at the “gang initiation” theory, which is baseless, and something he says has never happened here in the city.

“I’m not even sure why a narrative like that is out there. Anyone who would say that should give us an explanation as to why,” Willard said “We’ve never had a situation in the city where we have gangs shooting each other as initiation. That’s just people speculating with half-cocked ideas.”

Willard said Monday’s press conference and neighborhood meeting are not unprecedented. The perception that the North End is getting special treatment because the murder happened in an upper-class section of the city is skewed.

“This particular neighborhood is very close knit and invested. They wanted a community meeting with the chief of police to get answers, and at the request of that neighborhood, we did that. I would do that for this neighborhood or any neighborhood,” Willard said. “Every neighborhood matters.”

He pointed to a Ward meeting on the city’s West Side after Officer Dan Doherty was shot, and community meetings with South Street neighbors after a rash of gun violence as examples of police building bridges with communities in times of trouble.

Ward 1 Alderman Joyce Craig, who reached out to Willard about holding a meeting after fielding calls from constituents, said the shooting incident hit home for her as a resident and a parent. Her daughter was out at a party not far from Ray Street the night of the shooting.

She said the community meeting led by Willard alleviated her own fears, and went a long way with the other 100 or so neighbors who attended.

“We got some great feedback on how to cope with the stress, and an opportunity for residents to ask questions. Because of the seeming randomness of this crime, the goal was to help people feel comfortable where they are. I spoke to a handful of residents who said after hearing the Chief speak that they felt safe – a few said they felt even safer now than they did before the shooting, knowing how the police department works, and that they’re doing everything in their power to keep residents safe,” Craig said.

She also said she believes the response from Manchester Police is not unique in this case, and that it will always be swift and appropriate, no matter where in the city such a senseless and shocking crime occurs.

Willard maintains that, although the public may not always be aware of adjustments made from inside police headquarters when investigations are initiated, there is no preferential treatment based on geography or economics.

Every neighborhood will get equal treatment on his watch.

“Perhaps the difference is that the general public doesn’t always know when we’re meeting with residents,” Willard said. “My community policing division attended more than 300 meetings last year. We track that, and people who live in the neighborhoods that have been affected by crime and violence know it.”

During a news conference Aug. 31 Willard asked the public to come forward with any information that might be helpful, even if it seemed too insignificant to mention.

“People are responding. We’re getting information and sifting through every single phone call, email or interview. When someone comes into the station and wants to provide even the most seemingly innocuous information, we welcome that. It’s important to continue the dialogue with the community after something like this,” Willard said.

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About this Author

Carol Robidoux

PublisherManchester Ink Link

Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!