Jim Kenyon: Beef with the chief spills out of Hanover PD


Valley News Columnist

Published: 06-11-2022 9:59 PM

In the end, former Hanover police officer Mark Ridge not only voted with his feet, he spoke his mind.

At the Hanover Selectboard meeting on Monday, Ridge gave an unsolicited insider’s view of the town’s police department, or more specifically, what he considers a lack of leadership under Chief Charlie Dennis.

Ridge, who quit in March, told the board that he’s among five officers who have left in the last year. A sixth is about to leave, he said. The department, budgeted for 21 officers, is down to 17.

“Charlie Dennis is the reason no one wants to work in Hanover,” Ridge wrote in a lengthy letter to the board and Town Manager Julia Griffin that he read in part at the meeting. “His reign must come to an end.”

Ridge cited a “disconnect” between the administration and patrol officers. “Although the department is small and not very busy, the (administrative) staff seemingly never left their offices, except for training. They never went out on patrol. They worked Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., consistently.”

Dennis, who has been Hanover’s chief for eight years and hired Ridge in 2015, told me Thursday that he hadn’t seen the letter so couldn’t comment.

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In my dealings with Dennis, who was previously chief in Reidsville, N.C., where he oversaw a 60-person police department, I’ve found him thoughtful and cordial.

Dennis also deserves high marks for his handling of underage drinking on the Dartmouth campus, treating it more as a public health matter than a crime.

But I don’t work for him.

I couldn’t find other Hanover officers — past or present — who were willing to talk publicly about the inner workings of the department. Cpl. Ryan Kennett, who heads the officers union, emailed Friday that he had “no comment at this time.”

I hope, however, the Selectboard doesn’t write off Ridge as a disgruntled former employee and automatically dismiss what he has to say.

Ridge, 54, isn’t just some rookie.

He’s spent 28 years in law enforcement, including 21 years as a New York City cop. As a just-promoted NYPD sergeant, he was on the ground on 9/11. Later, he was part of a police tactical and rescue squad that responded to building collapses, train crashes and other disasters.

When Ridge was looking to retire from big-city policing, the Upper Valley caught his eye. (His daughter had gone to summer camp at Lake Fairlee.)

Becoming a patrol officer in Hanover was an “opportunity to continue in the profession” without the stress and risks that came with policing in the country’s largest city. “That’s for younger folks,” said Ridge, who grew up in Newton, Mass.

When he quit in Hanover, Ridge was earning $33 an hour — less than $70,000 year. That’s not great pay for a cop with Ridge’s amount of street experience, but he was OK with it. Adding in his NYPD pension, he could afford to buy a house in Hanover.

While many Upper Valley communities are struggling with police staffing shortages (just ask Norwich), recruiting and retaining veteran officers shouldn’t be a problem in Hanover, Ridge said.

“You can’t lose six people and just go, ‘Oh well, that’s law enforcement today,’ ” Ridge said in an interview.

For seasoned cops seeking a slower pace — and a second pension — Hanover should be an attractive landing spot, he said.

But filling positions remains an uphill battle. “We’re not where we need to be pay-wise,” Dennis acknowledged. (Hanover has three recruits starting at the New Hampshire police academy in August.)

Could Ridge’s criticisms be sour grapes? Is he blaming Hanover’s higher-ups for his own shortcomings?

Ridge shared his recent annual job performance reports, which aren’t public record in New Hampshire.

“He is not one to sit and hide in his cruiser,” his supervisor, Sgt. Matthew Ufford, wrote in November 2020. “Officer Ridge conducts more foot patrols and bike patrols than all the officers on (my) team, and in doing so, has had many positive contacts with the community.”

Given the opportunity to add his comments to the annual reviews, Ridge didn’t hold back. “This department is at a crossroads,” he wrote in 2020. “If the administration continues its laissez-faire attitude, the younger officers will follow suit.”

In November 2021, Ridge wrote that he had hoped the comments he made in the 2020 review would have “sparked a conversation on the direction of the department, and law enforcement in general. Alas, no luck.”

“I’m not long for this job and the younger officers need guidance,” he added.

Ridge volunteered that his personnel record wasn’t spotless. In 2016, he was suspended for a week for not using the video camera in his cruiser during traffic stops. He found the technology challenging to operate, but it was no excuse. “I did something stupid,” he said. “I learned from it.”

Noting the experience that Ridge brought to Hanover, Griffin said, “it’s unfortunate we lost Mark.”

Griffin was on hand for Ridge’s remarks at Monday’s board meeting. She had also read his letter. “It unfairly characterizes the administrative staff,” she said.

Griffin, who hired Dennis, praised the chief for assuming a leadership role in state law enforcement circles. He’s served as president of the New Hampshire police chiefs association and was appointed to Gov. Chris Sununu’s 2020 criminal justice reform commission.

Dennis’ statewide duties sometimes “take him away from department, but he brings a valuable perspective back to the town,” Griffin said.

Over coffee, I asked Ridge what he hoped to gain by confronting the town’s police administration in public. “It’s important for younger officers to know there’s a platform, if they want to speak out,” he said.

Ridge is taking time off to figure out what he wants to do next. If sounding off costs him a chance to continue in law enforcement?

“That’s OK,” he said. “I think I’ve accomplished a good amount in my career.”

Whether anything good comes from his speaking out, however, remains to be seen.

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