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Jim Kenyon: Protecting Piermont

Sunday, September 21, 2014
Earth to Piermont. You are a scenic New Hampshire town on the Connecticut River with 800 residents that has a general store, a bank and post office.

You don’t need to continue arming your two-man police force with semi-automatic pistols, Tasers and a 12-gauge shotgun (unless it’s partridge season). The military-style Humvee that the Selectboard scored through a Pentagon giveaway program a couple of years ago could go, too.

With this year marking your community’s 250th birthday, the time seems ideal. Celebrate what it means to be a small town with a rich farming heritage. Chuck the lethal weaponry and military hardware.

Last Wednesday night, about 30 Piermont residents showed up for a public meeting called by the three-man Selectboard to talk about the police department’s future. Since Chief Robert Garvin resigned in July, the town has grappled with how to go about hiring his replacement, or whether one was even needed.

Arguably, a town as small as Piermont could do without its own police. The Grafton County Sheriff’s Department has its headquarters just up the road in North Haverhill. The state police have an office in Piermont where troopers stop by at all times of the day and night.

The Selectboard established a Police Advisory Group, which consisted of four residents, to consult area law enforcement officials on the pros and cons of bringing in a new chief. On Wednesday night, the Selectboard announced the committee’s recommendation: Hiring a police chief was an absolute must.

“The well-being and safety of this community is at stake,” wrote the committee. “The town of Piermont warrants, deserves and needs a full-time police chief.”

No one in the crowd voiced opposition. If there were dissenters, I don’t blame them for not speaking up. As Selectboard Chairman Colin Stubbings rattled off the weapons in the police department’s arsenal, I thought I was at a NRA pep rally.

“We need a strong police presence,” a resident told the Selectboard.

“There are bad things that happen in small towns,” said another resident, expressing concerns that Piermont was ripe for drug and human trafficking due to its proximity to Interstate 91.

“I’m not trying to create hysteria,” the man added.

He left that to others. “There’s a lot going on in Piermont,” said Selectman Robert Lang, a retired teacher who has served on the board for 23 years. “We have 28 miles of back roads.” The bad guys need to know that if they “come in and do damage to our town or break into (homes and businesses)” that Piermont police will be watching, said Lang.

When polled by the Selectboard, about one-third of the residents in attendance said they wouldn’t mind if Piermont expanded beyond a chief and part-time officer. They want cops on duty 24/7.

That amount of coverage, which is found in only a few of the Upper Valley’s larger communities, is expensive. Hiring a half dozen or so part-time officers, along with a chief, would cost Piermont a lot more than the $120,000 it’s been spending on police, Stubbings pointed out.

“My guess is we can’t afford that,” said a resident.

Forget the money. Why do people feel they need cops — and all the firepower they bring with them — around the clock to keep the peace in such a small town?

After the meeting, the three selectmen were kind enough to stick around and fill me in on what they think is going on. I was glad to hear them say that Piermont hadn’t experienced a major crime wave.

It’s true, however, that some people, including the selectmen, still get worked up over the 2012 discovery of nearly 900 pot plants at the home of a Piermont resident, who was sent to prison for running what was described as the largest indoor marijuana growing operation ever discovered in the state.

Not exactly Charles Manson.

But there’s a perception — real or not — that crime is creeping north, said Selectman Ernest Hartley, who grew up in town. TV newscasts are dominated by stories about murders, sexual assaults and drug-related crimes. This paper ran a story last week about police uncovering an alleged meth lab in Hartford. “It’s getting close to home,” said Hartley.

In Piermont, there’s been an uptick in residents applying for concealed weapon permits at the Town Clerk’s Office, said Hartley. When I asked, Hartley and Stubbings said they had permits, but wouldn’t tell me if they were packin’ at the public meeting.

I then brought up the Humvee, a freebie the town acquired through the federal 1033 program that provides state and local police with military equipment the Pentagon no longer has a use for. In the aftermath of a police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., many people are questioning the wisdom of arming police with gear built for warfare.

But apparently not in Piermont.

The selectmen asked me not to divulge where in town they’re keeping the metal beast. It seems military Humvees don’t have keys. A few weeks ago, the town of Palestine, Ark., which is about the size of Piermont, discovered its 5,000-pound Humvee was missing from its police station parking lot. Apparently, it takes only a few minutes of Internet research to figure out how to start a Humvee.

Not wanting to add to the town’s list of irrational fears, I agreed to keep the Humvee’s location a secret.

Piermont doesn’t need a police chief. It could use a town shrink.

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