Queen City Crime
5:30 am
Mon July 15, 2013

Manchester Police Turn To Community To Help Curb Crime

All this summer, NHPR’s newsroom will take a closer look at crime in Manchester and how it affects the city and its residents. We’re calling the series Queen City Crime. Today, we begin with a look at Manchester’s Police Department and how it balances small-city challenges with big-city problems. A renewed focus on community policing is helping the department solve some of its staffing issues.

Newly minted police badges for the newest members of the MPD arrayed on a window sill.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

“…will perform all the duties incumbent upon you as a police officer for the city of Manchester so help you God.

–I do

Congratulations…[applause]”

On the morning before the Boston Marathon bombings, the Manchester Police Department’s Chief David Mara swore in seven new officers. That got them to a new total 212 officers and the number is budgeted to rise to 221 by the end of the summer. But those new recruits aren’t the only ones helping to tackle crime in the Queen City.

Seven new officers getting sworn in on April 15.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

“…Okay, August, August 15th is going to be the Rimmon Heights Ice Cream Social. So we’re gonna have, friends and family are welcome, there’s gonna be games…”

Diane Lavigne started the Rimmon Heights Watch Group on the west side in 2006. One of the city’s largest groups, they meet once a month at the Chez Vachon restaurant after hours.

“We had a lot of annoyances. So it’s not something you’d call 9-1-1 for but like drinking parties, kids gone wild, apartment buildings where people are moving in and it’s supposed to be empty.”

 “Manchester’s an interesting… it’s like big and small at the same time. So it’s got like a combination of like small city problems and then like big city problems.”

With a population of about one hundred ten thousand residents, rookie Officer Kevin Jusza, nicknamed “Captain” after his rank in the Army, sees problems of all sizes.

 “Y’know, throughout the day you’ll have… you’ll respond to the barking dog complaint or the neighbors who just can’t get along. Even something as silly as ‘hey my next door neighbor is dumping grass in my…’ y’know, silly things like that. Then you’ll also have things that are also indicative of a larger city like drug problems and things of that nature. So, it’s got a little bit of everything.”

It’s because of that mix of big and small city problems that Chief Mara wants to grow the force.

“A city our size should have between 250 and 275.”

That would give the department a ratio of about two point five cops for every thousand residents. That’s better than the national average for a city this size. But growing the force by that much isn’t likely. The city of Manchester just doesn’t have the money. The city only added more officers this year after the police unions made healthcare concessions.

Officer Mark Ampuja of Community Policing Division
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

In the meantime, the Chief is turning his focus to the community—community watch groups and a community policing division to help fill the gaps. The division used to be a small unit of patrol, but Mara raised it to the status of division after taking office.

Part of the community policing division’s job is to oversee neighborhood watch groups. And that job falls to Officer Mark Ampuja. He says each community officer is assigned to a specific neighborhood and creates relationships with the people living there.

“It’s kinda going back to that old-time police philosophy where the neighbors knew the police officers and the police officers, they know the residents within their neighborhood. And it really does open up those lines of communication where they feel comfortable in reporting different activity.”

Ampuja says that the number of neighborhood watch groups has spiked since 2006 at 80 groups from only 15 ranging in size from just two to 200 members. Today about 55 watch groups are active in the city.

“I know we saw a big rise, influx in the watch groups, shortly after Officer Michael Briggs was killed in the line of duty. I think after that we saw a lot of residents really wanting to get involved in law enforcement.”

The idea is that more police out pounding a neighborhood’s pavement, talking with the residents, means an improvement in the quality of life. A preventive care approach to crime, in a sense. It also helps residents feel more connected to their community and more empowered to make a difference.

Ampuja says none of the volunteer groups fit the TV stereotype of matching windbreakers, binoculars and walkie-talkies. In fact, they’re more often outside doing small projects—like Diane Lavigne in Rimmon Heights.

Rimmon Heights watch group at their monthly meeting in Chez Vachon.
Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR

“It was plain. There was not a lot of green around. So one of our objectives was to make the area safer, cleaner, more beautiful, hoping it would encourage more people to move into the area.”

The group has spearheaded local initiatives to clean up parks, plant flowers and they even paid for the Rimmon Heights banners over Kelley Street. But should those “annoyances” ever crop up, they have the help of their community officer, a cell phone call away.

Police departments determine their officer complement based on factors beyond simple population and municipal budgets also vary. Here's a look at the current department sizes for cities with populations similar to Manchester's.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR