Portsmouth Chief: 'People Are Talking A Lot More' About Police-Community Relations

Aug 2, 2016

While they say there’s much more work to do, advocates and law enforcement officials alike say have some reason to be optimistic about the future of police-community relations in New Hampshire.

“The community as a whole is discussing things a lot more,” Portsmouth Police Chief David Mara said on Tuesday’s episode of The Exchange, which focused on the relationship between law enforcement and minorities. “People are talking a lot more.”

Mara and other panelists on The Exchange pointed to a number of ongoing efforts to improve that relationship, particularly in the wake of a series of high-profile police shootings across the country.

“There is an ongoing and honest effort to engage community members and representatives of police forces in some discussion, I guess with the intention of hopefully increasing understanding,” said Woullard Lett, president of the Manchester NAACP.

Just this week, a forum held at the Portsmouth Public Library brought together police, members of the local NAACP, religious leaders and others to talk about local police-community relations. (Seacoast Online has more details on the discussion.)

Mara, who attended that  event in Portsmouth, said he heard from several residents who helped to open his eyes to the reality of what it’s like to be on the other side interactions with law enforcement. One mother, for example, told him how her husband gives their children careful instructions for how to act during a police stop, to avoid confrontation: Put your hands up on the dashboard and have your license ready.

“It’s a learning experience,” Mara said. “We have to be able to see a different point of view.”

Police departments across the state are engaged in diversity training, Mara said, and new programs are launching in several cities specifically aimed at fostering better relations between police officers and kids from minority communities.

As reported by the Union Leader, Manchester middle schools announced plans earlier this year to launch a pilot program “designed to educate students how to interact with police officers, in an effort to reduce racial disparity in the juvenile justice system.” Similar programs are in the works in Nashua and Rochester, Mara said.

“Training isn’t just how to shoot your gun, how to use your radio,” Mara said. “Training is also, how do you deal with people? How do you learn about people? You have to know who you’re policing. You have to get an understanding of how they feel. That’s what we have to do, in police work, a better job of.”

Lett, with the Manchester NAACP, said even informal outreach — like the Manchester police department’s plans to attend an upcoming “We Are One” cultural festival — can be an important part of improving police-community relations.

And more broadly, those who weighed in on The Exchange noted that it’s important not to overlook the larger historical and societal context affecting interactions between police and their communities.

“Our officers are out there, they’re the ones who have to face the brunt of the breakdown of our failings in society,” Mara said, echoing a point that was also made by President Obama in the aftermath of the police shootings in Dallas last month. “When you’re talking about racism, when you’re talking about poverty, you’re talking about mental illness, the police are the face of dealing with that. That is why a lot of these things happen.”

Dottie Morris, the Chief Officer for Diversity and Multiculturalism at Keene State College, also noted that that while racism might not seem quite as visible in New Hampshire as in other parts of the country, it still exists nonetheless — and can, in turn, play a role in how communities and police perceive one another.

“It doesn’t have to just manifest itself in cross burnings or overt forms of racism,” Morris said. “It’s not a slam on New Hampshire, it’s just a reality that we’re living in a larger context where institutional racism exists, even if personal kinds of racists acts don’t occur.”

Mara, too, acknowledged the role that race plays in the criminal justice system.

“There is a disproportionate amount of minorities that are incarcerated, if you look at our population as a whole,” Mara said, adding that it’s imperative to look at the underlying causes that are driving this trend. “Something is wrong. Anybody who doesn’t say there’s something wrong with that — the facts are there. There is a disproportionate amount of minorities that are incarcerated, and we are failing, somehow.”

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