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Lebanon Chief Says Police Won’t Try to Enforce Immigration Laws

  • Sheila Moran, of Lebanon, right, questions Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello, about his willingness to work with federal immigration officers under certain circumstances during a forum on local law enforcement facilitated by City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, left, at the Seminary Hill School in Lebanon, N.H., Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Mello said that his department is not interested in pursuing cases in which a person's only crime is being in the country illegally, but is open to contacting federal law enforcement when a more serious state offense is committed by someone who happens to be undocumented. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello speaks on his policing philosophy and major issues impacting his department during a forum on law enforcement at Seminary Hill School in West Lebanon, N.H. Tuesday, May 30, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dana Key, of Lebanon, voices his displeasure with police in Lebanon during a forum on law enforecement with Police Chief Richard Mello at Seminary Hill School in West Lebanon, N.H. Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Key, whose picture was published on the Lebanon Police Facebook page along with details of his arrest and charged of assault following an altercation in February, rose to speak when the department's use of the social media site became a topic of conversation at the forum. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 31, 2017

West Lebanon — Police Chief Richard Mello promised Lebanon residents on Tuesday that city officers will not be used to round up undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed a violent crime.

The police department also will continue to refrain from asking drivers about their immigration status during traffic stops, he told a crowd of more than 50 people attending a community forum at the Seminary Hill School.

“We’re not immigration officials, nor do we want to be, nor should we be,” Mello said. “I have enough issues on the local level within the community to spend my time on. I don’t need to spend it chasing after people who may be undocumented.”

Mello’s comments came as several Lebanon residents voiced concerns on Tuesday that city police could become more proactive in enforcing federal immigration laws in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election. During the two-hour forum, many said they don’t want to see local police aiding in the detention and deportation of undocumented immigrants.

During Trump’s first 100 days in office, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested more than 41,000 immigrants, an increase of 37.6 percent over the same period last year, according to The Washington Post. While a quarter of those arrested have criminal records, the number of immigrants detained without a record doubled, according to the Post.

“We have undocumented immigrants in our community. There are undocumented immigrants that have no legal basis for being here who are working at local farms, and if they were all arrested, the farms could probably shut down,” Lebanon resident Shawn Donovan said.

He went on to express concern that state officials also could pressure Lebanon to detain more undocumented immigrants, and said he heard rumors of New Hampshire State Police inquiring about the immigration status of drivers and passengers on Interstate 89.

“I would be shocked to learn that that was true,” Mello said. “I would be concerned if that was happening. I would not let that happen in our city.”

Although it’s unlikely those rumors are true, Mello said, he would bar troopers from enforcement actions in Lebanon if they were.

Lebanon officers currently do not ask for immigration status when making traffic stops, Mello said. If someone were to tell an officer they don’t have a driver’s license, that person would be given a ticket for not having a license, he added.

However, the Lebanon Police Department does maintain contact with federal ICE officials, he said, and there are “very few” instances where they are asked to coordinate. Last year, the police department encountered a single instance where ICE issued a warrant for someone under local arrest.

If the number of similar incidents increased drastically or ICE was requesting Lebanon police hold those that committed no crime, Mello said, he likely wouldn’t comply. Local officers also wouldn’t take part in a roundup, or programs that deputize them as federal immigration officers, he said.

“If they were to come to the city and say, ‘Hey, ICE is here. We’re ready to go round people up,’ my response is going to be, ‘Without the Lebanon Police Department,’ ” Mello said. “I don’t believe in that program. I think the resources I have and the expectations I have in the city is (that) I focus on local issues.”

While some in the audience implored Mello to completely cut ties with federal authorities, he declined, saying it would handicap some investigations or responses to some police matters.

“At any other time in my long life, I would not have been concerned about this. In fact, I probably would have applauded it,” resident Sheila Moran said.

She’s now worried about pressure the Trump administration could put on the city.

“I want to live in a city which stands ready to resist such intrusion into your local authority,” she said.

City Councilor Erling Heistad also lent his voice to those opposing some forms of immigration enforcement. He said some residents told him they were afraid to attend the forum because of their immigration status.

“Immigration is something that makes this community a lot stronger,” Heistad said. “ ... We as a community can go out and welcome those families.”

Over the course of the two-hour forum, Mello also discussed issues ranging from the possible decriminalization of marijuana to the police department’s Facebook policies.

Several people in the crowd said they were unhappy by the department’s former practice of posting arrest photos and news releases to the social media site.

As of last month, the department only uses Facebook to advertise community events and outreach efforts because moderators of the Facebook page encountered troubling comments alongside arrest photos, Mello said.

“I think it has hurt some people and I think it can be used inappropriately,” Lebanon attorney Peter Decato said about the Facebook page. “There have been some entries there that I know have hurt some people’s reputations. It’s actually been a source of entertainment, I suppose.”

Mello admitted the Facebook posts weren’t welcomed by the greater Lebanon community and said that’s why the department’s social media policy changed.

Earlier in the night, Mello also addressed a bill recently passed by the state Senate that decriminalizes possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana.

The bill is expected by many legislators to pass in the House and Gov. Chris Sununu has signaled he will sign it.

“When it does pass, I expect the impact on the Lebanon Police Department to be zero,” Mello said, adding city police have been operating for a while as though the bill were in effect.

Lebanon police traditionally make few arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, he said, and many of those charged are only issued a minor summons to appear in court.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.