Counting Cops, Part 3
Special 5-part series produced by Concord Monitor, a member of
As a kid growing up in Concord, many of George Tarwo’s friends didn’t trust the police.
Like many former refugees, Tarwo was born in a country, Liberia, where that mistrust was warranted.
His childhood was difficult, and police were called to his home in Concord more than once. But his own experience differed from his friends who had negative interactions with Concord officers. Tarwo was a star athlete in football and wrestling, and his coaches were Concord police officers. That early mentorship and those positive relationships contributed to his decision to join the Concord Police Department last year.
Today, his 8th-grade football coach is his day shift supervisor and residents see his megawatt smile as he patrols the downtown area, often on foot. Becoming a police officer wasn’t easy, and it became harder when his mother was diagnosed with stage IV cancer the day after he entered the police academy. But Tarwo said it was important to him to counter what he sees as false divisions between ordinary people and police.
“When it comes to policing, race will always be there … that will always be a topic. We’ve got to try to change it,” Tarwo said. “I’m still going to do what I need to do, to change people’s minds to have them have a different view on what policing actually is. We’re not out there to attack you, or find a reason to attack you. We’re here to help you.”
New Hampshire’s police force is overwhelmingly white, perhaps even more so than the state as a whole. Exact demographic data is hard to come by since no government agency or non-profit organization collects that information for the entire state.
The numbers are sometimes kept at the local level, but in smaller towns, the only information available is often the faces of the all-white police force.
Many departments have worked to diversify their ranks, hiring more Black and Latino and women officers. A few agencies have new leadership, including the first Black police chief in Portsmouth, the first Black sheriff in Strafford County and a Black assistant commissioner in the state Department of Safety.
Collecting demographic data
In addition to being a promising young hire who grew up in Concord, Tarwo was one of three Black officers in Concord’s police department as of July 2021. With three black officers, one Asian officer and one biracial officer, Concord’s police force is 94% white. The community itself is more diverse, with a population that is 88% white, according to Census data.
The department’s ranks have more gender diversity, with 14 female officers making up 16% of the force.
The Concord Monitor and the Granite State News Collaborative obtained demographic information from just under three dozen out of 200 police departments. Most said they don’t track that information on they were not required to provide it.
The New Hampshire Police Standards and Training Council recently switched over to a new record-keeping system that will track the race and gender of incoming police academy classes, allowing for statewide statistics for future police ranks that haven’t previously been kept.
Some individual departments, mostly urban and larger police forces, began keeping track of officers’ race and gender recently, in some cases beginning in 2020. National accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies requires records to be kept on agency demographics.
The 2020 report from the New Hampshire Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency recommended that local agencies strive to increase diversity.
“Recognizing the difficulty of hiring and recruiting qualified candidates, law enforcement agencies should continue efforts to recruit officers from minority communities to allow for a diverse law enforcement workforce,” the commission’s report said.
Mostly white, mostly male
Of the cities that provided racial data, all had between 86% and 100% white police forces. Hudson had the highest percentage of officers of color, with 7 out of 51 officers who were not white.
Hudson Police Chief Tad Dionne said that in addition to the usual places where jobs are posted, his staff attended job fairs in more diverse Massachusetts cities, although lately, it has been harder to compete with the pay and benefits offered in southern New England states.
“We went to job fairs in Lowell, which is a much more diverse community,” Dionne said. “I can’t tell you what the recipe is for us to attract women or attract minorities, but we did.”
The New Hampshire State Police, the state’s largest law enforcement agency with close to 400 troopers, is 95% white. The state as a whole is about 93% white.
In 2020, the Manchester Police Department was 94% white, with 13 officers of color, in a city that was 82% white in the last U.S. Census.
Nashua, which also is 82% white, had a department that was 95% white, with nine officers of color in 2020.
Out of the departments that supplied demographics, Concord ranked highest for hiring women, coming out ahead of Nashua, with 6.8% women and Manchester, with 9.2% women in 2020. Manchester has signed on to the “30 by 30” pledge, committing to have 30% of recruits be women by 2030.
Nationwide, about 12% of law enforcement officers are women with just 3% in leadership positions, according to FBI data from 2019, although that percentage drops to closer to 9% or 10% for cities with fewer than 25,000 people.
Officer Paige Salmon has been a Concord police officer for three years. While there are definitely more men than women in the department, she said she has never felt inferior to her male coworkers. “They’re literally my brothers,” she said.
Because Salmon is smaller than some of her male colleagues, she uses other tools – like a technique called verbal judo – to deescalate situations. It helps that sometimes men don’t feel the need to do macho posturing with her. “Guys don’t try to fight females as often,” Salmon said.
Race and bias
New Hampshire Department of Safety data collected in 2019 from police departments demonstrates that officers in the state’s largest cities disproportionately arrest Black and Hispanic residents.
In Concord, Nashua and Manchester, all departments that are whiter than the cities they serve, police were more than twice as likely to arrest Black people. The same held true in Portsmouth, Laconia and Franklin, which have even smaller Black populations. Officers arrested Hispanic people at higher rates than their share of the population too, but to a lesser extent.
A study of Chicago police officers published last year in the journal Science found that Black and Hispanic officers made fewer stops and arrests than white officers. The study’s authors also found that officers of color, along with women, used force less often.
Black Lives Matter Manchester co-founder and University of New Hampshire law student Ronelle Tshiela said anyone serving a community – whether police officers, politicians or teachers – should reflect the make-up of that same community. But she thinks there is a limit to what racial representation can achieve in police reform.
“I don’t think that a racially diverse police force is going to be the end-all-be-all because policing still has its roots in the same system,” Tshiela said, with the same policing practices and tactics being taught to officers of any race. “Having a more racially diverse police force does not change all those root issues.”
Citizenship another hurdle
In addition to the usual bureaucratic steps and difficult physical training to make it onto the force, when Tarwo applied, he was a green card holder and not yet a U.S. citizen. Tarwo arrived in the United States with his family when he was six years old. He joined the Marines after college, but COVID-19 delayed the citizenship process that would usually happen at boot camp.
Instead, Concord Police scrambled to speed up his application last year so he could join the New Hampshire Police Academy, which only accepts U.S. citizens. Chief Brad Osgood wrote a letter to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in hopes of expediting his citizenship. A week before the academy, Concord’s efforts were successful.
A subcommittee of the Police Standards and Training Council took a look at the citizenship issue. Director John Scippa said an administrative rule requires New Hampshire law enforcement officers to be U.S. citizens. Many states require citizenship, although not all.
Scippa said the subcommittee ran into two obstacles when considering lifting the citizenship requirement. One was that conducting a thorough background check would be more difficult when someone had lived a good portion of their life outside the U.S.
The second was more philosophical. “Police officers are given the authority to take the freedom of a citizen away when you arrest them,” Scippa said. He said some on the subcommittee struggled with giving a non-citizen that power over a citizen.
Many police chiefs and command staff say that they don’t do anything differently to try to attract women or minority candidates, but that they are always searching for the best applicants, regardless of identity.
Portsmouth Police Chief Mark Newport, the state’s only Black police chief, said he is trying to hire more people of color and women. It’s something members of the public ask for when they need help.
“There are some calls when people say they want a female or want a Black police officer,” Newport said.
Newport said trying to hire qualified officers who are willing to live in the expensive Seacoast region has already been difficult. “Finding females and minorities is like a bonus on top of that, it’s like a grand slam,” he said.
He’s seen the state’s police force become more diverse, which he said is a good thing.
”When I started back in 1995, I think across the state there was a handful of Black police officers and we all knew each other,” Newport said. He estimated that the five or seven Black officers have grown to closer to three dozen.
Tarwo, one of those new officers, hopes to see more cops that look like him in New Hampshire in the future.
In June, he recalled a recent encounter with a young kid of color at Concord Gardens, who asked him, “how are you a police officer?”
His answer: “I’m a police officer for you,” he said. “I’m a police officer to show you, though you’re from a different place, you can still achieve and get what you want, no matter what anybody tells you.”
Seeing someone who looked like him in a uniform made an impact on the boy, and his mom took a photo of him and Tarwo together.
“And just from there,” Tarwo said, “he’s like ‘I wanna be a police officer.’ ”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.