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Editorial: Clueless in New London; Officials’ Concern Is Misplaced

It takes a rare degree of tone-deafness to manage to make yourself look bad while doing the right thing. New London town officials appear to have the gift.

As staff writer Mark Davis reported in Thursday’s Valley News, the town is spending $35,000 to upgrade video and audio recording devices at the police station and in patrol cruisers.

That’s smart, given that New London’s former police chief, David Seastrand, resigned in April and relinquished his police certification in return for the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office ending a criminal investigation into allegations that he offered to drop charges against a 19-year-old college student whom he had arrested if she would pose nude for photographs.

Given that the offer was allegedly made during a three-hour one-on-one meeting at the police station; that the attorney general’s office is investigating other complaints about Seastrand; and that the student is apparently planning to sue, the town certainly has a legitimate and pressing concern about the need to document interactions between police officers and the public.

Town officials, however, have managed to transform that valid concern into a public relations disaster by framing their decision to upgrade the recording equipment as a response to the need to protect police officers from false allegations of misconduct. The minutes of an April Selectboard meeting are sufficient to provide the flavor of this rationale: Acting Police Chief Ed Andersen “said that many in the department are worried that they are one phone call away from a false allegation. 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 the context, there is no way to interpret this but as an attack, first, on the credibility of the young woman who reported Seastrand’s alleged misconduct to the attorney general’s office and, second, against women in general who make such allegations. So far, nothing that has transpired in this whole sordid affair indicates that Seastrand was the victim of a false allegation; his abrupt resignation suggests the opposite. In any case the prudent course is to withhold judgment until the attorney general’s inquiry into the other complaints has been concluded and any civil suit has been litigated.

But one wonders in these circumstances why the cameras in the police station were allowed to fall into a state of disrepair without the department making any apparent effort to upgrade them until April. No such request was made until then, according to Budget Committee member Doug Homan, “whether intentionally or simply because they didn’t care. I’m more than alarmed. I’m shocked.”

Homan, in fact, appears to be an island of rationality in a sea of cluelessness. “The real reason for doing it is to protect the community,” he said. “They work for the community, and the safety of the public at large is my number one priority.”

This is not to say that police officers are not sometimes falsely accused of wrongdoing. What’s good about audio and video recording is that, as Claremont Police Chief Alex Scott told Davis, “Oftentimes, it’s the best evidence. It’s for the protection of everybody. The reason you record that stuff is so you can play it back and know what happened.”

Exactly. We wonder why New London officials couldn’t just have left it at that.