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Jim Kenyon: Lebanon Police Bust and Post

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, March 05, 2017

It’s bad enough that Lebanon cops still think that arresting people for allegedly possessing small amounts of marijuana is a good use of their time and the taxpayers’ money. But must they gloat about it on Facebook?

Apparently.

On Feb. 21, Lebanon police posted a mug shot of 20-year-old Corey Riendeau, of Hartland, who was arrested three days earlier in a Lebanon police sting operation.

That’s right — a sting over marijuana. Straight out of Starsky & Hutch.

As I’ve written before, Lebanon cops take an aggressive stance against pot, averaging about three busts a week. Last year, they made 152 marijuana arrests — down slightly from the 2015 total of 157. Still, marijuana accounted for 57 percent of the city’s drug arrests in 2016.

By posting the picture of a young adult charged with possessing a small amount of weed on its Facebook page, however, Lebanon police have sunk to a new low.

What’s next in the public-shaming department? Medieval stocks in Colburn Park?

The Facebook post also included a news release that gave the following police account of what happened:

While conducting a drug investigation at a Lebanon apartment building, cops learned that Nicole Farewell, 20, of Canaan, was trying to “sell drugs via Facebook.” Police then “engaged Farewell in an online conversation in which she agreed to sell them marijuana.”

An afternoon rendezvous was set up for the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot on West Lebanon’s Main Street.

“I was just getting a ride from her,” Riendeau said when I talked with him by phone on Friday. “I didn’t even know what was going on.”

At Dunkin’ Donuts, Riendeau started to get out of the car to buy a coffee. He never got the chance. A Lebanon officer — his gun drawn — tapped on the passenger-side window. Meanwhile other officers were surrounding Farewell in the parking lot. She was nabbed for alleged possession of marijuana with intent to sell.

After Riendeau was handcuffed, they “dug through my pockets,” where they found a plastic bag, he said. “It was pretty much dust in the bag,” he told me. But enough by Lebanon police standards to earn Riendeau a trip to the police station, where he was fingerprinted and photographed.

The cops were far from done. They posted Riendeau’s picture on Facebook for their 5,000 followers to see and invited comments.

As of Friday, the post had attracted 59 comments, ranging from “Get a Life Lebanon PD” to “I am so glad the LPD are doing this. Keep up the great work.”

I think it’s fair to say that Chief Richard Mello, who came aboard in December 2015 after working in southern New Hampshire, doesn’t share my view that police had no business making a big deal of Riendeau’s brush with the law.

Once the driver was charged with a felony, in Mello’s way of thinking — but certainly not mine — the case had risen to the level of news. Police couldn’t publicize Farewell’s arrest but ignore the “companion case.”

It’s a matter of “fundamental fairness,” he said.

The feedback he’s received about the department’s Facebook page has been quite positive, Mello told me. People want “transparency and access to information,” he said.

Mello is a big believer in the power of social media. “I want to make sure people are aware of what we’re doing.”

I imagine that includes the Lebanon City Council. Mello is a smart guy. It couldn’t have taken him long to figure out that the council would buy into his outdated notion that communities can arrest their way out of the drug problem. The more attention he can bring through social media to the city’s war on drugs, the easier it will be to make his case at budget time.

Many Upper Valley police departments have joined the Facebook bandwagon. (This newspaper has as well, I’m afraid.)

Norwich cops are one of the few Facebook holdouts. Hanover police use it sparingly. Although the plan is someday to have its own page, that department currently posts through the Hanover Regional Communications Center, which provides dispatch services to about 20 communities.

Hanover police post mostly “positive things,” such as upcoming “coffee with a cop” events, said Chief Charlie Dennis. Lebanon police also post public service announcements on their page.

Dennis, another relative newcomer to the Upper Valley law enforcement community, told me that it’s appropriate to post “significant arrests.”

He doesn’t put marijuana in that category.

“We should be sensitive to what we put up there,” he said. “Good people make mistakes.”

Riendeau, who works as a truck mechanic, is looking at a fine of $500 or so, if convicted of the misdemeanor. New Hampshire is the only New England state that continues to treat possession of small amounts of marijuana as a crime. Everywhere else it’s the equivalent of a traffic violation, and doesn’t saddle an offender with a criminal record, which can prove problematic when applying for a job or college.

Last year, when I was writing about this issue, Mello made the point that “until the state Legislature tells me that certain amounts of marijuana, other than medical marijuana, are legal, this is what we’re going to do. There’s still a law to enforce.”

I guess. And when people get caught breaking the archaic law, Lebanon police can still rush to Facebook to maximize their public humiliation.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.