Jim Kenyon: Cutting through rhetoric on the cost of cops

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/28/2020 9:28:13 PM
Modified: 11/28/2020 9:28:02 PM

Believe it or not, the opposing sides in the heated debate over how much Lebanon taxpayers spend on policing — way too much or just about right — have something in common.

Both groups could benefit from reality checks.

To suggest the city halve its $6.3 million annual police budget over the next two years, as advocated by “Care Not Cops” supporters, is a nonstarter.

It’s hard to take seriously the Upper Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which is leading the campaign, when it fantasizes that transferring millions of public dollars from the police department to social service entities virtually overnight would solve Lebanon’s ills.

I agree that as a nation we spend too much on law enforcement and not enough on reducing poverty and helping people with mental illnesses and substance use disorders. But for real headway, states and the federal government must step up as well. The burden shouldn’t be placed on the backs of city taxpayers.

At the same time, the people behind the “Support Our Lebanon Police” campaign, started by Curt Jacques, owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply, need to remove their blinders.

Along with a bloated budget (I’ve even had officers tell me that the administration is top heavy), Lebanon cops, like many police departments across the country, operate with little public oversight.

Case in point:

In late May, two Lebanon police officers were placed on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Six months later, Lt. Richard Smolenski and senior officer Paul Gifford, president of the Lebanon patrol officers’ union, continue to collect paychecks.

Police Chief Richard Mello, who came to Lebanon in 2015 from southern New Hampshire, won’t share the accusations against the officers that led to the top-secret investigation. Meanwhile, Lebanon taxpayers have doled out more than $80,000 in total to two officers for staying home.

Unless it becomes a criminal matter, the public will likely remain in the dark, even after the investigation is wrapped up. The immense political power that police unions wield in New Hampshire and just about every state virtually guarantees that cops never answer to the public.

After Minneapolis police killed George Floyd in May, Mother Jones wrote about why police unions have so much power. “Democrats don’t want to come down against unions, and Republicans, who are normally happy to attack unions, don’t want to mess with the police,” the magazine wrote in a recent issue.

But as the Lebanon debate has shown, police and Care Not Cops, which is a national initiative, share some common ground.

Currently, when Lebanon police respond to a call about someone experiencing a mental health crisis, the person can end up in handcuffs — if a crime is alleged — or in an ambulance for hospital treatment.

This summer, Mello and Care Not Cops supporters got behind the city’s effort to secure a federal community development grant for West Central Behavioral Health, a longtime Upper Valley nonprofit that provides outpatient mental health treatment, to start a “mobile crisis team.”

West Central needs about $300,000 for an 18-month pilot program that would provide mental health professionals to serve as 24/7 “backup to police,” President Roger Osmun said in an interview last week.

For a person in the midst of a mental health crisis, having an armed cop show up at their door in response to a 911 call can make matters worse. “We can de-escalate the situation,” Osmun said. “Our goal is to keep people out of emergency departments and out of jails.”

The feds, however, recently turned down the grant request, Osmun told me. He’s hoping that state money might soon become available, but it’s no guarantee.

Here’s an idea: The City Council could take $300,000 from next year’s proposed police budget to fund West Central’s mobile crisis team. It would reduce the police budget about 5%, but it could also reduce cops’ workload.

I brought up the idea to Mayor Tim McNamara, who agrees that partnering with West Central is a “really good concept.” Although it’s late in the budget-crafting season, the concept is still “worth looking at,” he said.

When it comes to transparency, Lebanon could take a big step forward at almost no cost. With the stroke of a pen, the council could establish a citizen advisory board to investigate complaints about alleged police misconduct.

“A citizen advisory board can be a critical component to establishing an open culture between a public agency and the community,” the International Association of Chiefs of Police wrote a few years back when addressing criminal justice reform.

Under Lebanon’s current approach, a police captain, who answers to Mello, handles the bulk of residents’ complaints. In 2019, nine complaints were investigated, according to the Lebanon police website. Eight were deemed “sustained/founded” while on four occasions officers were “exonerated. ” (Some complaints involved more than one allegation.)

For “confidentiality reasons,” the names of officers and the disciplinary action taken, if any, is not made public, Mello told me.

He pointed out that residents who are uncomfortable lodging their complaints with the department can go to City Manager Shaun Mulholland. I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. Mulholland himself is a former New Hampshire police chief.

Instead of a local civilian review board, Mello prefers complaints be handled by a state board, a recommendation made this summer by Gov. Chris Sununu’s commission on law enforcement issues.

From a public trust standpoint, that would be an improvement. And maybe public oversight of police conduct would help both supporters and detractors check their realities.

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

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