Portsmouth Police Department Works to Put Difficult Chapter Behind Them

Mar 29, 2016

Portsmouth Community TV has a new show this spring – featuring the city’s police department. It’s just the latest effort by the department to mend its public image following a well-publicized lawsuit.

Just outside the gym at Portsmouth Middle School, two police officers set up shop at a small table after school. Spread across the table are what look like baseball trading cards. But instead of major league sluggers, the cards feature Portsmouth Police officers.

Nine year-old Max Barker is already a collector.

“One is a girl holding a baseball cap with a baseball hat, another one is a girl in front of a car behind a tower; another one is on a motorcycle behind a bridge,” explains Barker.

The idea is to give kids an excuse to approach police officers outside of emergency situations. Detective Rochelle Jones runs the program.

“You should know who your officers are," says Jones. "We know who you are and you should be able to go right up to your office and just have a conversation with them and this kinda breaks the ice.”

If a child collects all 28 cards, they can enter to win a prize.
Credit Courtesy Portsmouth Police Department

It’s just one of the ways the Portsmouth PD is trying to engage more with the community. There’s also a police sponsored athletic league, a partnership with the Portsmouth Housing Authority, and a community advisory board in the works. 

And on Portsmouth’s public access TV, "PPD TV" recently aired its first episode. The show is hosted by Chief Mara and will profile a different officer each month.

David Mara is the former chief of the Manchester Police Department, where he served for nearly thirty years and where he earned a reputation for emphasizing strong community-police relations. A philosophy he brings with him to Portsmouth.

“We need to do a better job partnering with the community," says Mara. "We need to get out there, get their views, let them know where we’re coming from, and work on some things together. We are a service organization and we could be providing great service but if your customer base doesn’t think so, it doesn’t matter.”

That customer base hasn’t thought so, as of late. Mainly because of the Webber-Goodwin case that wrapped up last year.

In that case, former Portsmouth PD Sergeant Aaron Goodwin accepted a $2 million inheritance from an elderly resident diagnosed with dementia. Judge Gary Cassavechia ruled that Goodwin exerted undue influence to get it.

He also wrote in his ruling the testimony of some witnesses from the Police Department was “self-serving and dubious.”

A separate review panel found the command staff and police commission, failed to act when they learned about the situation.

Assistant mayor Jim Splaine says the case has taken a serious toll on the department’s standing around the city.

Officer Aaron Goodwin was ultimately fired from the department.
Credit RICH BEAUCHESNE/SEACOASTONLINE

“I think there was a lot of suspicion," says Splaine. "You know, what’s going on? How did these things happen with the Webber estate? Was there a cover up? I was one of the city councilors who did call it a cover up.”

Ultimately, officer Goodwin was fired and chief of police Stephen DuBois resigned.

Joe Plaia, who is one of two new police commissioners elected in the aftermath of the Webber-Goodwin case, says the incident also hurt the morale of officers who were not involved.

But, he says, it’s beginning to get better.

“I don’t think that everybody has forgotten about it," says Plaia. "I’m just saying, right now, it’s positive. The moral of the community, the moral of the department and the relationship between both I think are quite repaired, quicker than any of us possibly imagined.”

The outward facing programs like the trading cards and "PPD TV" are a part of the effort. But Mara is also making internal adjustments at the department.

“It’s better to flatten out your organization," says Mara. "Whatever supervision resources you have, you like to have those resources closer to the people out in the street. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

As interim Chief, Mara will have a relatively short tenure at the Portsmouth Police Department. But even so, he has clear goals for what he wants to accomplish before he leaves.

“When somebody looks at a Portsmouth Police cruiser or a Portsmouth Police officer and they say ‘that’s my police department’," says Mara. "That’s our goal.”

Whether that goal will be realized any time soon is unclear.

But assistant Mayor Jim Splaine says he hopes the city doesn’t move on too quickly.

“And I say that by pointing out that we should never forget," explains Splaine. "Otherwise we’re apt to slip back into it.”

That challenge will likely rest with the city’s next police chief. Police Commissioners announced earlier this week they’ve hired a search firm to find out just who that will be.