The Valley News has been selected to add two journalists — a photojournalist and a climate and environment reporter — to our newsroom through Report for America, a national service program that boosts local news by harnessing community support.

Please consider donating to this effort.

Jim Kenyon: Lebanon Chief Ready for Dialogue

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 5/28/2017 12:37:07 AM
Modified: 5/28/2017 12:37:08 AM

Lebanon police average four arrests a day — nearly 1,500 total last year. Three times a week someone is arrested in Lebanon for possessing marijuana. That seems like a lot of arrests for a community of 13,600 residents, even one swelled during the day by an influx of commuters from surrounding towns.

But maybe that’s just me.

Lebanon residents will have a chance to draw their own conclusions on Tuesday, when Police Chief Richard Mello will “share his policing philosophy” during a town hall-style forum at Seminary Hill School in West Lebanon. The two-hour event in the auditorium starts at 6 p.m.

Mello, who came to Lebanon in December 2015, is expected to cover a variety of topics, ranging from how police are dealing with the opioid crisis to the city’s role in the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Just as important, the forum is an opportunity for people to let Mello know what’s on their minds. It will be interesting to see if they do. Too often, people are afraid of speaking up because they don’t want to get on cops’ bad side.

But Mello strikes me as a cop who is willing to listen.

Last month, apparently after complaints reached his desk, he halted Lebanon’s use of Facebook to publicize arrests. Police were posting details of arrests, including some misdemeanors, and displaying mug shots of alleged offenders.

Critics, including me, considered it public shaming. Although police departments across the U.S. use Facebook to promote their crime-fighting exploits, it didn’t go over well in Lebanon.

“There was certainly a lot of buzz in the community,” Mayor Sue Prentiss told me.

Cops hold the ultimate power in our society — the ability to take away a person’s freedom, or worse, with impunity. Public accountability is a must, which is why I’m sometimes hard on them in my column.

For a recent interview with Mello, I brought along statistics about arrests posted on the department’s website. Last year, Lebanon police made 1,475 arrests. In 2010, it was 1,178. That’s a 25 percent increase in six years.

Mello, who spent more than two decades working in law enforcement in southern New Hampshire, cautioned about reading too much into the numbers.

State laws, for instance, that call for a driver’s license to be suspended for such infractions as failure to pay child support have been expanded over the years. That’s led to more arrests for driving without a license. In 2016, police made 119 more arrests (a 48 percent increase) for driving after suspension than in 2015.

Although police made 20 fewer drug arrests in 2016 than in 2015, it’s probably wrong to infer the city’s substance abuse problem is subsiding.

It’s not uncommon for addicts to resort to theft to get money to support their drug habits, which might help explain why there were 34 additional arrests for shoplifting (a 31 percent increase) that brought the 2016 total to nearly 150.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, a driving force behind the upcoming forum, made an interesting point when I mentioned the city’s overall increase in arrests. “When police are really busy it signals that we have community issues that need to be addressed,” she said.

How does Lebanon compare with other communities?

It’s hard to say.

The size of a police department and the socio-economic characteristics of a community can affect the number of arrests. And some police departments aren’t as diligent as Lebanon’s at keeping the public informed. In looking at the police website in Claremont, a city with roughly the same population as Lebanon, the most recent arrest totals I found dated back to 2014.

Last year, Lebanon’s 152 marijuana arrests accounted for 57 percent of the city’s drug arrests. With New Hampshire on the verge of joining the 21st century — and the five other New England states — in decriminalizing marijuana, those numbers should drop.

Until then, Mello said, he won’t instruct his officers to ignore activity that’s against the law. “I don’t think that’s ethical,” he said.

The regime change in Washington has some Lebanon residents worried — and for good reason — that undocumented immigrants will find themselves under increased police scrutiny. Local opponents of Trump’s deportation efforts don’t want Lebanon police targeting undocumented immigrants who are otherwise law-abiding citizens.

“Nothing is changing,” Mello assured me. During traffic stops, for instance, “we really don’t care about their immigration status,” he said.

But if federal immigration agents want to camp out at Lebanon’s police station to question detainees?

“We’re going to cooperate with the federal government,” he said. “That’s our job.”

I have a feeling that won’t sit well with some Lebanon folks. They frown on any level of cooperation between local authorities and the feds.

Tuesday’s forum will be an opportunity for people to voice their sentiments and for Mello to “get the temperature of the community,” Prentiss said.

The public may have more sway in police matters than it thinks, said Norwich defense attorney George Ostler.

The onus to change isn’t on police, Ostler told me. Elected officials — from city councilors and mayors to state legislators and governors — set the parameters under which police operate. They also control the purse strings.

“Police can be reined in,” Ostler said. “Ultimately, it’s a political decision that has to be made by society.”

Do we treat substance abuse as an illness or a crime? Do we lock up undocumented immigrants or defy the wishes of the federal government? Do we threaten the homeless with $100 fines (as in Lebanon’s new city ordinance) or build more shelters?

In Lebanon, the conversation is about to begin and I hope the public holds up its end of what should be a true dialogue.

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




Valley News

24 Interchange Drive
West Lebanon, NH 03784
603-298-8711

 

© 2020 Valley News
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy