MANCHESTER, NH – “A hundred days? It feels like a lot more than that,” says Chief Nick Willard, genuinely surprised that it has only been 100 days since he officially took over as chief of police.
Probably because it’s been whirlwind, like a baptism by fire in a city caught in the vice grip of a drug epidemic.
In addition to learning the ropes of his new duties, Willard, who has been with Manchester Police Department for 23 years, was steering the ship when on June 30 his officers uncovered and executed a major drug bust that happened on the eve of his swearing-in ceremony, netting an alleged $2.2 million in heroin and fentanyl. It also led police to shut down a drug operation in Lawrence, Mass. Three people involved in that case were indicted Thursday, on his 100-day anniversary,
Then there was the fatal shooting of Denise Robert on Aug. 30, on a quiet street in a secluded North End neighborhood as she took a late night stroll. The shooting death remains unsolved.
And most recently on Willard’s watch, the death of 21-month old Sadence Willott in September. Autopsy results showed the toddler suffered blunt force trauma to the head. Katlin Paquette, 22, the child’s mother, was charged two weeks ago by the State Attorney General’s office with second-degree murder.
Willard takes a seat and tilts his chin up, joking that the job has already given him a gray beard – his way of bringing up a fundraiser he and his officers are participating in, to raise money for the Child Advocacy Center of Manchester.
Beards are not regulation.
“The guys wanted to grow beards so we came up with this idea, a fun way to bring awareness to support the CAC,” says Willard, who plays by the rules, but doesn’t have a problem bending them for the right reasons. That’s why he changed the department’s policy on tattoos right out of the gate, because it automatically excluded otherwise worthy candidates from becoming city police officers, primarily those who’d served in the military and gotten inked to honor the experience.
Inclusive. Supportive. Creative – three key words in Willard’s vocabulary, heard frequently over these first 100 days, almost like a mantra.
Officer Safety is No. 1
When asked what’s the one thing that keeps him up at night, or the first thing on his mind when he wakes, Willard says his No. 1 concern is not solving the heroin crisis.
That is number two.
“Frankly, the safety of my officers is No. 1,” says Willard. “Given the national discourse toward law enforcement in general, although we haven’t seen it to that level here in Manchester, it’s something that concerns me and I worry about. I think Manchester is different than some of the places we’ve seen around the country, because we have a robust relationship with the community, but it doesn’t make me worry any less for the officers out there doing the job. I do what I can as chief to put additional officers on the street to help minimize what the officers are dealing with.”
And what they are dealing with is an increasing number of calls for service.
“We had 129,000 calls for service last year, and they will respond to even more this year, and every call they respond to, there’s always the potential there,” says Willard, without completing the sentence. That’s because the danger of losing an officer to injury or death is understood.
Besides, Willard knows the best way to protect his officers is to make sure they are well trained and prepared for whatever situation arises.
“One thing our officers are good at is critical incident response. Their skills are well honed because of the number of calls they go to, but that’s probably the thing I worry about the most, the safety of officers on the street,” Willard says.
Heroin Epidemic and “arresting our way out of it”
When asked how he sees his role when it comes to solving the issue of drug addiction in the city, Willard doesn’t hesitate. He has heard the comparisons made to how other communities outside of New Hampshire are handling the crisis, specifically Gloucester, Mass.
“My role is enforcement, it’s removing drug dealers from the street, it’s affecting the supply of drugs coming into the city, and my approach is two-pronged. Obviously I’m going after low-level dealers that directly affect the quality of life in a given neighborhood. And now we’re partnering with federal authorities to create OCDETF – that’s the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, which will allow us to go after medium- to high-level dealers, which we can trace back to the Mexican cartels fueling drugs in New Hampshire and all of New England,” Willard says.
Drug court and expansion of community centers, like Hope for New Hampshire Recovery, are realistic goals. He also knows that for families with loved ones hooked on heroin, time has already run out, and every day is a life-or-death situation.
“I took several calls between Friday and Sunday from a desperate father trying to get his son into treatment. He was fearful his son was going to die. We exchanged numbers, and he was telling me that his son finally wants treatment. I sent him to two people I thought could help him, but it turns out nobody could help him. There was no place for him to go without waiting five weeks, and the father’s fear is that his son won’t make it five weeks,” Willard said.
It’s that kind of familiar scenario in the city that has Willard working on a partnership with people from the recovery community, to become like first-responders when there is an overdose call. It would be an initiative that could provide a lifeline to someone who may be ready to take a first step toward a life without drugs.
He says New Hampshire needs to organize a standardized drug addiction recovery and treatment program within the prison system, so that on day one, when a person enters the system, until they are released from prison, they would know where they fall into the treatment cycle.
It would be a way to break the cycle of addiction, crime, incarceration and recidivism.
“It would be expensive for the state to initiate such an endeavor, but I think it’s worthy. There also needs to be a bridge program, for once someone gets out of jail, to meet with care providers so you have something to go to, not just back to the streets with your buddies,” says Willard. “And I’d like to try and enlist 100 companies to employ people once they’re out of jail.”
Protecting children in high-risk situations
An investigation into the homicide of 21-month-old Sadence “Saddie” Willot in which her mother has been charged with second-degree murder, created some tension between Willard and the state Division of Children, Youth and Families, after remarks made by Willard during an interview, that the system had failed the toddler.
That remark was fueled by another case, says Willard. On Sept. 1 a judge dismissed a case brought by police against a social worker, who told the court the reason it took her more than six weeks to report that she had witnessed a father holding a loaded gun to his 10-year-old’s head was because she “forgot.”
“My frustration over Saddie Willet was not intended to be a bold statement but my level of frustration bubbled over after the judge dismissed the charge in the DCYF case,” said Willard.
“When, as Chief of Police I learned about this case, and that it took 43 days for DCYF to notify MPD so we could investigate, I was taken aback. How does someone forget something like that? I didn’t understand how that could possibly happen,” says Willard.
“I don’t mind being blunt. When it comes to children and protection of children, I can’t worry about the sensitivities of another organization, or individuals. If that obligation is not being fulfilled, the protection of our most vulnerable, I will speak out and do what I can,” says Willard.
He’s already taken action on that front by adding a child advocate to the department through an Americorps grant he advocated for, to provide immediate services and resources for children whether they have been exposed to domestic violence, a parent overdosing, to any sort of trauma, even a SWAT raid, says Willard.
“One thing people will realize quickly is my commitment to protecting children in the city of Manchester,” says Willard.
He pauses for just a moment as he considers his next words.
“I came from a hard-scrabbled life, and didn’t grow up in the most perfect of situations for a child, even though the lessons I learned growing up are the things I want to change currently,” says Willard.
“Back then, domestic violence was seen differently, so police would come to a home and leave, maybe tell a parent to take a walk. What I remember most growing up in a very poor family was just how the cops looked at you, and made you feel less than worthy. That contempt that I felt in the way they looked at me – I didn’t care for police officers as a kid because of that. It wasn’t until I was in the military and became a military policeman that I changed my thinking, and thought maybe there was another way to be a cop,” says Willard. “I didn’t feel compassion from police officers as a kid.”
Setting the bar high and leading by example
Willard is pretty certain his officers know what makes him tick. He is outspoken and tries to be positive.
“It’s not unusual for my officers to do something extraordinary, and I always try to make sure I show my appreciation, like we had Officer Steven Duquette, who shoveled the front of a man’s garage in a snowstorm, or Officer Tim Feliciano, who bought a wheelchair for a man who’s wheelchair broke – just on his own, no one knew about it. Or seeing 12 of our officers chip in to buy presents for a family whose Christmas presents were stolen right before the holiday – and ended up with more presents than they knew what to do with,” says Willard.
“As chief, you just take those moments and make sure everyone knows you appreciate it, that’s how they know what your DNA is, and what makes you tick and what you value,” says Willard.
Bearing the weight of the city, every day
“It was beyond my capacity to realize just what was involved with being chief of police in Manchester,” says Willard, when asked how he’s holding up. Initially it was the sense that people were “invested” in the position, says Willard, from the unsolicited pats on the backs to barbs.
“Everyone has an opinion. Everybody’s pretty quick to let you know what their thoughts are, whether it’s a good one or a bad one. But it’s clear that the people of the city of Manchester hold the chief of police as an important position. There aren’t too many places I can go without being recognized. There’s no more anonymity, and that’s something I didn’t anticipate,” he says.
“As for the weight of the job, that’s something I did anticipate because I saw Chief Mara under it. I’m a passionate person. I throw myself into things fully, so I have to be mindful to take a day off every once in a while that I wouldn’t otherwise take,” Willard says.
Predicting Policing a Game-Changer
Willard is particularly pumped about the predictive policing model that they are shifting to under the guidance of Officer Matt Bonner of the crime analyst unit, who did his master’s thesis at Boston University on predictive analytics.
Manchester Police Department has already been recognized for the innovation of this process by IBM, which invited them to attend the annual IBM Insight conference in Vegas.
When Willard politely declined the invitation, IBM sent a film crew to Manchester to get some of the details for posterity, a video that will be shared during the conference as an example of how innovation through analytics is a game-changer in police work.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re doing this in the wake of a heroin crisis, so we can’t focus more of our efforts on implementation. The officers have responded to more than 400 overdoses, and each call can be an hour or hour and a half, time which could otherwise be spent proactively hitting their predictive hot spots,” says Willard.
It’s unfortunate because it’s already proven to be a mighty crime-fighting tool over a 12-week test of three targeted crimes – theft from vehicles, burglaries and robberies.
“In those 12 weeks, all those crimes are down 28 percent from the previous 12 weeks,” says Willard. “This is bold. This is bolder than a police officer doing an intake for someone who wants to be put into recovery. The Gloucester model is well intended, but someone seeking services should be seeking services from some place other than a police department, simply because it’ taking a police officer away from the things they should be doing. In Manchester, I’d need 12 police officers, full time, to do a job like that.”
And based on the recent results of an independent crime analyst, Manchester’s predictive policing is truly leading edge.
“He said even though other agencies are using the concept we’re using, he has yet to see an agency use it to the degree we’re using it, and with the full buy in, from the chief all the way down to the patrolmen,” Willard says.
Walking the Beat
Willard is also big on “park and walk” patrols, and makes sure every Friday he clears his schedule so that he can park his cruiser and walk a neighborhood, the best way to find out what’s happening on the street from those who live there.
It was during a recent park and walk that Willard identified a drug house on Massabesic Street, and when he brought it up with his detectives he found out they were way ahead of him, and that there was already an action plan in place.
“That’s one thing I’m finding, by physically going out into community – and not just myself but my command staff – by going out and hearing directly from people in real time, who are living in fear or living in a perception of fear, we’re able to come up with solutions,” Willard said.
That kind of outreach following violent crime can be transformative, says Willard, citing for example an overnight change in mood following a series of shootings on South Street over the summer.
Neighborhood shootings are particularly unsettling because the violence enters, uninvited. Such was the case with the shooting death of Denise Robert, a case currently being handled by the Attorney General’s office.
“What I can say is that we’re hopeful we’ll solve it. We do have information we’re actively following up on in earnest. We haven’t sat back on our laurels, and will continue to investigate,” Willard says.
The Next 100 Days
Despite the national conversation about policing issues, like the use of body cameras, Willard says they are not on the top of his wish list – right now they are cost prohibitive, says Willard, and the storage capacity required is also beyond Manchester’s budget. However, adding new officers is something on the top of the list – Willard wants to boost the ranks by 20 officers as soon as he can get them trained and sworn in.
The sooner the better.
Efforts will also continue to keep officers out in the community as much as possible, walking the beat or through driving patrols, as a way of showing people who live in neighborhoods that are most prone to crime that the police department knows what’s going on – that the chief of police knows – and is ready and willing to listen.
“The message to all of them is that they are not forgotten.”