Manchester Police Chief: We Need A More Racially Diverse Department

Feb 3, 2015

Manchester Police Chief David Mara
Credit NHPR / Ryan Lessard

Manchester is the state’s largest city, and it’s also the most racially diverse.

In the wake of tensions between police and citizens in several large cities, the Manchester Police Department recently held a public forum to talk about policing in a diverse community.

David Mara is chief of the Manchester Police Department.

He joins Morning Edition to talk about the issue.

When you first talked about the idea behind the forum, you said you didn’t want to have a Ferguson in 10 years. What did you mean by that?

One thing that hit me about Ferguson was of course the violence, the aftermath of that, and also the actual incident. But leading up to the incident, it became clear to me there was not a good relationship, at least what we were seeing in the news, between the Ferguson Police Department and the community they police. And what I meant by that is that I don’t ever want to get to that point. I don’t want Manchester to ever be to that point where we don’t have a good relationship with the community.

With tensions building up year after year.

Yes.

At the forum, residents were asked to bring their issues and concerns up. What did you hear?

We heard they want more contact with the police. We heard different ideas about how we can have more contact. Everything from the way to bring people together is they have a forum featuring food. If you look at Manchester, we are a diverse community. We have people from all over the world. It would be a good idea to do that. Inevitably, I find when you talk to people in the community, there are more things we have in common than differences.

Most people want safety. They want their kids to get a good education. And they want to be able to enjoy their lives; they want good quality of life. That’s what we all have in common. That’s what we’re all seeking. So instead of pointing out all the differences we have, I think we can come together with what we have in common and learn about each other.

You said you want a police department that better reflects the face of the community. Do you feel like there’s a lack of diversity in the police department now?

Yes, I do. And there really isn’t any blame to go with that. That being said, I believe we have to do a better job. We are seeking ways to attract minority candidates. We have different demographics and we are changing. You can just look at our school system. The best way to look at where a city is heading is just look at your elementary schools. We have at least one elementary school that is more minority than white. So we do want to reflect the face of the community. To do that, we have to get qualified people to apply. We have to convince them this is something you want to be a part of.

So how do you go about doing that?

We advertise in places where minorities that might want to be police officers will see the ads. We get advice from the community. We have a minority hiring committee where we get minority members of the community to give us advice about what they think we’re doing wrong, what we’re doing right, what’s your opinion.   

There have been protests against cases of police brutality across the country over the past month or so. Do you see any of that division between police and any particular segments of the population in Manchester?

I don’t see a division. Race and race-related issues: people don’t want to talk about it. And that’s where you have problems. It’s a difficult thing to talk about. If we have community meetings where that is the focus of the conversation, it’s easy to bridge that gap and talk about things. We’re not always going to agree, but at least let’s hear each other’s opinions.

At that forum, you heard a lot of those opinions. How did your officers feel afterwards?

I think they were nervous about it before. And then afterwards, they were pleased. At the end, when we were putting chairs away and talking at the end, there was a little bit of a debrief going on and they were pleased. They were glad they participated.

Policing means working with the community to keep everybody safe. Everybody working together. That’s what policing means to me. Police department’s a major part of that, but they cannot do the job alone. That’s what’s going on in communities across the country, that’s what we’re seeing; that they’re two different entities and they’re opposed. And that’s what we don’t want: the community and police opposing each other.

It seems to me you want more of a sense of the beat cop as part of the neighborhood?

Yes. I’ve been with Manchester 28 and a half years, and when I first came on, you were put on a walking beat your first year. For the most part, very rarely were you in a cruiser. But the nature of police work had changed. The amount of calls for service has gone up. Our department and I believe other police departments across the country, I call it a “drive-by.” We’ve almost become “drive-by” police where we wave to people on the way from call to call. We expect our officers to answer those calls. In between, they’re supposed to deliver subpoenas, do traffic enforcement, issue parking tickets, and have a break. And then they’re expected to do their paperwork.

And what we want to do is slow our police officers down. We want patrol, which is the biggest part of our police department, we want them to be an integral part of community policing. Slow them down, and get them to engage with the public. Right now, we have a community policing division, and they do a great job. But ultimately, I’d like to have a community police officer in each geographical area of the city, set it up just like the ward system that we have for politics.

Of course, in talking about those efforts and manpower, you do need more resources. Do you see the city as willing to give you those resources?

We made do with 205 police officers at one point. We now have approval to get up to 237. That’s a testament to the mayor and Board of Aldermen.

The forum was a few weeks ago now. You’ve had some time to digest those comments and response. What comes next?

We’re doing a lot of follow-up on what was discussed there. For example, our police department reflecting the face of the community. We have a great opportunity coming up on March 21. There’s a police entrance test that we’re holding. It’s going to be up at the New Hampshire Police Academy.

There’s still plenty of time for people to sign up for that and I would like anybody with an interest. I’m not just looking for minority candidates; I’m looking for any candidates. But I would like to see many minority candidates to go there; women, as well. It’s a good opportunity for people to come and participate in the process.