Police Filming In New London
New London — Since Police Chief Dave Seastrand resigned in April after a Colby Sawyer College student accused him of asking her to pose nude in exchange for lenient treatment, town officials say they have been relegated to the sidelines while awaiting word on two pending matters: The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office investigation of additional complaints against Seastrand, and the student’s stated plans to file a civil lawsuit.
There is, however, one step that town officials have taken in hopes of avoiding future trouble: Recording equipment inside the police station and patrol cruisers was upgraded to protect officers against “false allegations,” according to both town records and interviews with officials. The upgrades cost $35,000.
“Chief (Ed) Andersen said that many in the department are worried that they are one phone call away from a false allegation,” according to minutes of an April Selectboard meeting in which he asked for money for additional cameras. “He said there are many times when officers arrest a young female at 2 a.m. and there is oftentimes undocumented time spent. He thought cruiser cameras would be helpful in protecting officers from false allegations.”
In an interview, Andersen, the acting police chief, said cameras inside the police station had been allowed to fall into disrepair in recent years, and needed replacing “for our protection ... and the protection of the town.”
Andersen gave an example of an officer who, while responding to a broken down vehicle driven by a young female, allowed her to wait for a tow truck in the back of his cruiser at 2 a.m.
“Anybody can make an accusation,” Andersen said. “The accusations make a lot of us scared,” he said later.
Town Administrator Kim Hallquist, who backed the chief’s request for new camera equipment, agreed.
“The whole incident that happened in April brought everything to light,” Hallquist said of the cameras in an interview. “Officers are (concerned about) an issue if someone accused us of something.”
The town’s assertion that the allegations by 19-year-old Janelle Westfall demonstrated a need to protect officers from false claims troubled Abby Tassel, assistant director of WISE, the domestic and sexual violence crisis center in Lebanon.
“It’s just disturbing,” Tassel said in an interview. “It reinforces the message that women are out there, making stuff up about being sexually assaulted. The reality is, the vast majority of victims never tell anyone.”
Tassel said Westfall’s allegations should be taken seriously.
“I know a lot of police departments utilize a lot of cameras in patrol cars in order to document arrests, but it’s ludicrous to think in this case someone would have made that up,” Tassel said. “It’s bizarre, but it’s in keeping with how victims of sexual violence are treated in our society. There’s disbelief. ... It only reinforces victims being questioned.”
The theoretical scenario provide by Andersen was not so different that the events that precipitated Seastrand’s disgraced resignation. Authorities say that on March 3, Janelle Westfall, 19, was arrested after she was found walking alone on County Road, allegedly intoxicated, holding a 12-ounce can of beer. She allegedly provided a false name and date of birth to Seastrand when he arrested her, alone, at 2 a.m.
Days later, during a three-hour, one-on-one meeting at the police station , Westfall alleges that Seastrand offered to drop the charges against her if she posed for a series of nude photographs. She reported the incident to the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office. Following an investigation, Seastrand agreed to resign and relinquish his police certification in exchange for an end to the criminal investigation of his conduct.
Westfall, who has no criminal record, recently had her case sent to diversion, a court program that allows defendants to perform community service or other requirements and avoid a permanent criminal record.
Westfall’s attorney, Rick Lehmann of Concord, did not respond to a request for comment.
Citing the pending Attorney General’s Office review, Andersen, Hallquist and Selectboard Chairwoman Tina Helms declined to discuss Seastrand and Westfall.
However, they all said the camera upgrades are badly needed.
Currently, out of 30 cameras at the Seamans Road police station, 14 can be viewed only in real time and do not store recordings and the other 16 have only video, but not audio capabilities, Andersen said. The cameras are wall-mounted.
During interviews with subjects, officers use hand-held audio recorders, Andersen said, but having cameras automatically recording both audio and visual would be more reliable.
Westfall’s allegations aren’t the only incident that has motivated police to push for new cameras, Andersen said. Recently, he said, a man in custody inside the police station slammed his head into the ground repeatedly, and then told police he was going to accuse them of causing his injuries.
By the end of July, police plan to install new cameras in the booking area — where arrested defendants are processed and fingerprinted — and one of two conference rooms, where interrogations occur. Additionally, two of the department’s three police cruisers with cameras will be outfitted with cameras.
(A third cruiser is scheduled to be replaced later this year, and the new vehicle will have a camera, Andersen said.)
The money for the police cameras was shifted from the town’s Recreation Department budget. The director left earlier this year, and a full time replacement has not been hired .
Area police departments differ in their use of cameras. The Hartford Police Department has cameras both at the station and inside cruisers.
On the other hand, Claremont does not have any in its cruisers, and just one of Enfield’s cruisers has a camera.
Both, however, have cameras inside their police stations that capture and store audio and video recordings.
“Oftentimes, it’s the best evidence,” Claremont Police Chief Alex Scott said in an interview. “It’s for the protection of everybody. The reason you record that stuff is so you can play it back and know what happened.”
Enfield Police Chief Richard Crate said false allegations are made against police officers more frequently than the public may realize. He recalled one incident in which a man accused an Enfield officer of acting belligerently and threatening him. The encounter was captured on video, which showed the officer acting politely, and the complainant hurling threats.
“I watched the video and when I called the guy, I told him, ‘You’re full of crap, the officer never said anything, you were rude to him,’ ” Crate said. “The guy didn’t want to take responsibility. (The camera) really helped.”
New London officials said they were unaware that the police station’s cameras had failed until Andersen brought it to their attention in April.
“There was never a request from the police department to upgrade that equipment, whether intentionally or simply because they didn’t care,” said Budget Commitee member Doug Homan. “I’m more than alarmed, I’m shocked. It’s unbelievable ... that the Police Department hadn’t maintained the existing equipment in that building.”
Homan said he supported the purchase of cameras — to help protect the public. He declined to comment on the Seastrand case.
“The real reason for doing it is to protect the community,” Homan said. “They work for the community, and the safety of the public at large is my number one priority.”
Andersen said that Seastrand, a 27-year veteran of the department, controlled the budgeting and all requests for equipment.
“That was entirely up to Chief Seastrand,” Andersen said.
A review of Selectboard meeting minutes since the building opened in 2001 shows that Seastrand never brought concerns about recording equipment to the Selectboard: In 2003, he asked for several hundred dollars to install better locks on cell doors. In December of last year, he asked the Selectboard for $3,000 to replace three broken Tasers and a Taser camera that had been broken for more than one year.
Seastrand did not respond to a message seeking comment.
His attorney, Nicolas Brodich of Concord, provided a statement in which he applauded the town for installing the cameras.
“It’s easy, in times of tight budgets, to scrimp on things that might not seem terribly necessary, like audio/visual equipment,” Brodich said. “But it takes one incident like the accusation against Chief Seastrand to make us realize there is value to such equipment. It is the only way to protect the police against false allegations.”
Brodich could not be reached for further comment.
However, former New London Town Administrator Jessie Levine noted that, in 2011, the town voted during Town Meeting to take $40,000 sitting in a police equipment capital reserve fund and put it toward general expenses, in an effort to provide relief to taxpayers.
“It’s a tight budgetary environment,” Levine, now the manager of Bedford, N.H., said in an interview.
Levine said that local government employees frequently request money for equipment when an event of public interest helped demonstrate the need.
“That’s when you’ve got the most compelling case, especially when you have a scapegoat that’s not around,” Levine said. “It’s the perfect opportunity for a department head to say, ‘The equipment is deteriorating.’ If I were a department head, I’d use the opportunity to upgrade equipment.”
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.