NH Law enforcement tell Shaheen they worry about mental health, homelessness, summer activities

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Manchester Police Chief Carlo Capano said the fallout from COVID-19 around the need for mental health and homeless services is “crippling” the city. File Photo/Jeffrey Hastings

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Having adequate personal protective equipment, access to reliable data and support for existing social problems made worse by the pandemic are among the biggest concerns for law enforcement leadership in New Hampshire. 

On Thursday (May 28) 12 law enforcement leaders attended a telephone conference with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. The senator’s office organized the call so that Shaheen could understand what support law enforcement agencies need, especially as the Senate prepares to consider a second pandemic relief package, the HEROES Act , next week. 

Local police departments and state police reported that they have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) right now. However, all are worried about continuing access to PPE, especially if there is a second wave of the virus during the colder months. 

“I’m concerned about the long-term plan. Eventually, this is going to hit us harder than it has,” said Lancaster Police Chief Timothy Charbonneau. 

Sgt. Jeff Mullaney of the University of New Hampshire Police said that the number of masks needed as 15,000 students return to campus will quickly become “staggering.” Maintaining a supply chain of PPE will be essential as the state reopens, he said. 

Social consequences of the pandemic

In Manchester, issues of mental illness and homelessness are “crippling” the city, said Chief Carlo Capano. The visible homeless population normally increases during the summer months, when some people without homes prefer to live outside rather than in shelters. That was made worse when two people associated with New Horizons homeless shelter in Manchester tested positive for coronavirus in late April. That’s when people began avoiding the shelter, Capano said. 

The Manchester Police Department is currently trying to contain — but not disband — homeless encampments, but Capano called for a larger solution. The pandemic has highlighted the way that the state fails people dealing with mental illness and homelessness, he said. 

“It’s really shining a light on the issues in the state with mental health and homelessness,” he said. “We’re really starting to see a very bright light shining on it.”

Addressing the state’s addiction crisis is still a priority for law enforcement, said Charlie Dennis, Hanover Police Chief and president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. 

“The opioid crisis is still killing more people in New Hampshire than COVID,” he said. 

Capt. Patrick Cheetham of the Londonderry Police department is worried that funds redirected to address the pandemic will mean less support for “the issues we had before March 1.” 

“My concern is there wont be enough money to address the social problems that we’re going to see after COVID,” he said. 

Shaheen noted that there is funding in the HEROES Act to help people stay in their homes, although she did not specifically address the issue of people who are already homeless, or people grappling with mental illness or addiction. 

More emergency calls as summer begins

While calls for service were down throughout March and April, multiple agencies said that calls were increasing again as the temperature rises and people begin to leave their homes more. 

In Hampton, Chief Richard Sawyer just came off a busy Memorial Day Weekend. He said that while restaurants were doing well enforcing social distancing, the crowds outside the establishments were too close. The city is also dealing with hotels and motels renting rooms to out-of-state visitors despite the governor’s order not to do so. This summer, a portion of Ocean Boulevard will be closed to vehicles to increase space for pedestrians. 

“It’s going to dramatically change how we patrol down here,” said Sawyer, asking for financial support for unique equipment needs like Segway scooters. 

The Department of Fish and Game has been particularly busy during the pandemic as Granite Staters went outside more, said Colonel Kevin Jordan. In April, the U.S. Forest Service shut down access to some popular areas in the White Mountain National Forest, which helped reduce the influx of search and rescue calls that Fish and Game fielded in the early days of the pandemic.

However, the Forest Service plans to reopen Tuckerman’s Ravine on Monday, June 1, which Jordan believes would be a disaster. The ravine, popular with back-country skiers, is still experiencing “mid-winter conditions.” 

“We envision thousands of people going up there to ski,” Jordan said. “Injuries in an average winter are tremendous, and they’re going to be a lot worse when people have been waiting.”

Jordan asked for Shaheen’s support in asking the Forest Service to continue to keep the ravine closed for an additional two weeks, which he believes would drastically reduce the number of skiers — and required rescues. 

Streamlined data and access to information

Multiple agencies asked for Shaheen’s support in streamlining data and access to funding. Dennis said that knowing where confirmed cases of COVID are is essential for maintaining officer safety. However, there have been discrepancies between the number of cases reported by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the data that 911 dispatchers have access to, he said. One day this week, DHHS reported 147 cases in Derry, but the 911 dispatch center only had information on 30 of those. 

“It’s hard to get a good picture there of what’s going on… because the data doesn’t seem to mesh together,” Dennis said. 

Similarly, Strafford County Sheriff David Dubois and New London Chief Emily Cobb reported trouble finding the funds that they were eligible for, and accessing different programs. 

“It can be rather overwhelming to know what’s available to apply for and how to get it,” Cobb said. 

File Photo/U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-NH

Shaheen promised to update departments with the funding that is available, and to try to reduce the red tape that can make it difficult for agencies to utilize funds from different organizations, like the local government and the federal government. 

Cobb noted that increased access to testing has been critical for her small department. Four out of nine members of the department have had to self-isolate because of possible exposure to coronavirus. As the wait time for test results has been reduced from about a week to 48 hours, it has taken strain off her officers, Cobb said. 

The HEROES Act contains a provision for changing the cash bail system. Dennis expressed concern over that, given New Hampshire’s experience with a similar measure last year. Law enforcement felt the reduction in the use of cash bail meant that some people “were not held when they should have been,” Dennis said. Shaheen agreed that the measure was problematic in New Hampshire. 

The act also provides funding for continued hazard pay for some front-line workers. Currently full-time police, fire and ambulance personnel can get up to $300 a week in hazard pay, which has made a difference in existing recruitment challenges, said Scott Naismith, president of the New Hampshire Police Association President and an officer in Salem. 

“Just to know someone has our back, we appreciate that,” Naismith said. 

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