Soon-to-be Canaan police chief lays out challenges and priorities ahead
|Published: 11-26-2022 10:13 PM
CANAAN — After graduating from Mascoma Valley Regional High School, Ryan Porter wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do as a career.
“I was kind of lost, to be honest with you, all through school,” Porter, the incoming chief of the Canaan Police Department, said in a recent interview during a drive around town.
He spent a year at Plymouth State University, where he thought about becoming a gym teacher, but it wasn’t the right fit. Then, he recalled the ride-alongs he’d done in high school with Tom Dakai, a New Hampshire Fish and Game warden who has since retired.
“That kind of sparked an interest in me for conservation law enforcement,” said Porter, 43.
When Porter, currently a sergeant in the Canaan department, is sworn in Dec. 30, he will take the reins from Sam Frank, who has served as chief for 17 years. Frank’s retirement is one of several in Canaan’s leadership over the last year: Longtime town administrator Mike Samson retired this fall, and longtime fire chief Bill Bellion retired last spring.
Porter’s promotion comes as some Upper Valley towns are struggling to hire police, including chiefs. Norwich hired a police chief in October after a four-month search, and Hartford has been looking since its last permanent chief left in early 2021. This summer, Claremont hired Brent Wilmot, Newport’s police chief, who had spent more than a decade with the Claremont department.
“I want to make sure that I lead this department with complete transparency,” Porter said. “That is my personal goal.”
Porter started working in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff with the Waldo County Sheriff’s Office in Belfast, Maine, in 2001. He earned associate and bachelor’s degrees in conservation law enforcement in 2002 from Unity College in Unity, Maine. While working for the sheriff’s office, Porter was in a car crash that shattered his knee and sidelined him for about nine months.
Friends of his in law enforcement in New Hampshire encouraged him to look for work in his home state. Porter briefly worked for the Plainfield and Orford police departments before landing back in his hometown in 2005. A year and a half ago, he worked for the Enfield Police Department as a detective sergeant for around six months before returning to Canaan.
“At the time I went there, I saw an opportunity to go and do something a little bit different, and I needed a change of scenery, I felt,” Porter said.
He lives in Enfield with his wife, son and three stepchildren. They also own rental properties in Canaan.
Porter went to high school with Enfield Police Chief Roy Holland. While he enjoyed working for Enfield, Porter heard that Frank was considering retiring.
“The town of Canaan graciously welcomed me back, and I came back with the hopes that I would be able to further my career as the police chief,” Porter said. “Thankfully it’s worked out.”
Holland welcomed Porter’s appointment to the top job one town over.
“Ryan and I are very like-minded in our policing philosophies,” Holland said, noting they are both committed to a community-based approach.
The Enfield and Canaan departments often work closely together and are each other’s first call for mutual aid. Officers often train together as well.
“He’s always been professional and, I thought, very detailed and good at his job, and I think he’s going to do a great job as chief in Canaan,” Holland said.
Canaan has changed a great deal since Porter first joined the force.
“When I started here, people used to refer to Canaan as the Wild West. We were plagued with a lot of domestic violence, a lot of family issues,” he said. “I feel like a lot of that stuff has gotten a lot better. I think the laws have gotten stronger.”
Law enforcement officers have also gotten better at responding to domestic violence calls, which has increased the public’s trust. It used to be that police officers came to arrest a perpetrator but did not do much for victims afterward, he said.
“It wasn’t that they didn’t want to help. It’s just more so that they weren’t necessarily trained properly to do follow-up to support the victims,” Porter said.
Officers now get more training in responding to domestic violence calls.
“Now a lot of that is put on our shoulders to do,” he said. “And people always say we’re the police, we’re counselors, we’re divorce mediators, and we really are.”
Porter said the time police officers spend responding to calls involving a mental health crisis has grown. He lauded the Mobile Crisis Units that operate in Lebanon and other communities and is looking forward to when the units expand to Canaan.
“I really think that would be helpful, and to have another neutral and detached party there other than the police, I think would be really beneficial for us,” Porter said.
Mental health calls can also involve substance abuse.
“We have to address mental health so we can start addressing substance abuse as well,” Porter said. “It goes hand in hand, but that is expensive to do and it takes a lot of resources. It can’t just be put on the police.”
Like other towns in the area, Canaan continues to deal with issues related to substance use. Porter said police are seeing more methamphetamine use, and fentanyl also remains a problem.
“We do not carry Narcan,” Porter said, referring to brand name for the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. “That is something I am going to change.”
Currently, Canaan relies on neighboring departments to help in the event of an overdose. He wants all Canaan police officers to carry Narcan.
Porter also wants to work more closely with H.A.L.O. Educational Systems, a Canaan nonprofit that assists people with substance misuse, as well as mental health and behavioral disorders.
Six officers make up the Canaan Police Department, including Porter. One of his first tasks will be hiring an officer to fill his the vacancy he creates.
“We have a couple of guys that are pretty young,” Porter said, adding that he hopes to hire someone with more experience. “I would like somebody obviously, if I had a perfect scenario, it would be somebody that’s already full-time certified and that somebody can step in to sort of take over the role that I have been filling for years now as far as handling investigations, being able to handle calls.”
Porter also comes into the role with law enforcement under increasing public scrutiny. In Canaan, former patrol officer Sam Provenza was accused of using excessive force during a 2017 traffic stop that left a woman with a serious knee injury and ended in a settlement. Provenza was later cleared of wrongdoing, though his dashboard camera was reportedly turned off during the incident, and the case led to a legal fight over a taxpayer-funded third-party investigation that the town and Provenza fought to keep out of the public eye.
Porter said that the case affected the public’s perception of the police department.
“I think the public as a whole is very forgiving, and they just want to make sure that our police department is being held accountable, and I don’t begrudge them for that,” Porter said. “People have not taken it out on us, regardless of what their perception was.”
Porter is a big proponent of training and will encourage officers to take advantage of those opportunities so they can better serve the public.
He also wants to work with town officials to rewrite and introduce some new town ordinances, including ones involving noise, winter parking bans and nuisance dogs, including those that attack livestock.
“That’s one of my goals, to really rewrite all those and start enforcing them,” Porter said. “Not heavy-handedly, but at least so people know and we can educate them that we have these on the books.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3221.