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The Upper Valley’s Policing Problem

nightstick.jpgThis space has documented at length the anomalously aggressive enforcement policies of the Town of Hanover Police Department towards underage drinking by Dartmouth students — as compared to the attitudes of police forces in other Ivy towns. Now it is worth asking whether the Upper Valley has a more generalized policing problem.

Today’s Valley News has an extended column by Jim Kenyon regarding the apprehension of a homeowner, Wayne Burwell ‘97, by officers of the Town of Hartford Police Department. Kenyon lays out the details of the arrest, pepper-spraying and handcuffing of this long-time local resident in his own home after police responded to a burglary call from his house cleaner.

Burwell, an African-American, worked at my local business for half a dozen years, and at all times he was more than polite in his dealings with the people around him; in fact, he was courteous to the point of being courtly. But when the Town of Hartford police came to his home after an erroneous call, they seemed excited at the chance to apply force in an otherwise innocuous situation. A witness described one of the arresting officers as carrying a high-powered rifle during the arrest.

In addition to Hanover’s longstanding problems, consider this situation in light of the controversies in Norwich, Vermont — since resolved — where residents made a concerted effort in recent years to bring in a new town manager for whom community policing was an important value. The new manager, along with the local citizenry, worked to educate the police to respect citizens rather than enforcing the laws with a chip on their collective shoulders.

I had my own experience with the Norwich Police in its previous incarnation several years ago when an officer there stopped me for supposedly rolling through a stop sign. He then told me that he smelled alcohol in my vehicle and said that he would have to breathalyze me. I responded that I had had wine with dinner two evening before, that I had just delivered two unopened bottles of wine to a friend in Norwich, and that there had never been an open container near my vehicle during its entire life. The officer insisted on testing me, and after I had fully emptied my lungs through his device, and then inquired whether I had blown a 0.00%BAC, he told me in no uncertain terms: “Do it again!” Same result.

Herewith two observations about the reasons why many local police officers seem at war with the citizens they are charged with protecting:

Too Many Police Officers: In 2008, Hanover’s 36 police department employees were the fourth highest number per 1,000 inhabitants among the 21 towns in New Hampshire with populations between 8,000-16,000. However, Hanover’s rate of violent crime (6 total crimes) was the fifth lowest per 1,000 inhabitants among the same towns and its rate of property crime (207 crimes, almost all of which were minor thefts) ranked thirteenth in the state in this same group. In short, Hanover officers just have too much time on their hands.

Not Enough Training: Too many Upper Valley law enforcement officers seem to lack the training that will enable them to distinguish between the reality of our quiet communities and the violence that they witness on crime shows. Policing should be about safety, rather than throwing one’s weight around in disrespect of local residents.

It’s time for reform by the Upper Valley’s mayors and town managers. If they are not motivated by a desire to better serve their constituents, the six-figure score that Burwell will get out of this episode should be plenty of incentive to make changes.

Addendum: Though the new Dartmouth administration is showing generalized signs of ineptitude, all indications point to the College’s Safety & Security officers as having adopted the light touch that should be a model for other forces in the Upper Valley. This observation applies to alcohol enforcement and also to the gentle chastisement of certain nameless citizens who went swimming yesterday evening from a College dock in the Connecticut River.

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