Jim Kenyon: Black cloud lifted, Lebanon cop leaves policing behind

  • 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: 10/5/2021 3:03:41 PM
Modified: 10/5/2021 3:03:43 PM

Unless you’re up on the New Testament — which I’m not — the tattoo etched on Paul Gifford’s right forearm probably doesn’t carry much meaning at first.

Gifford got his “Matthew 7:2” tattoo about the time he became a cop nearly 15 years ago. “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged,” said Gifford, reciting the beginning of the biblical verse when I asked about the tat.

“It’s a reminder for me,” Gifford said. “The interaction (police officers) often have with people is when they’re at their worst. We see the bad side of people, but that’s not their whole story.”

From the day he started as a twenty-something patrol officer in 2007, Gifford said he made it his “goal not to judge people.”

Now after having a “black cloud” hanging over him for 14 months, Gifford, who worked in both Hanover and Lebanon, is walking away from policing.

It’s a shame. The Upper Valley — and society, in general — can ill afford to lose cops who still believe their primary job is to protect and serve.

But after what Gifford has been through who can blame him for wanting out?

On May 26, 2020, Gifford and another Lebanon police officer, Lt. Richard Smolenski, were placed on paid administrative leave for reasons not made public. Richard Mello, the city’s police chief at the time, would only say an investigation was under way.

Nearly a year went by without any official word on what the investigation was about. Meanwhile, Gifford and Smolenski collected paychecks for staying home. In Smolenski’s case, it amounted to roughly $100,000. Gifford, a senior patrol officer, received more than $65,000.

It sounds like easy money, but there was that matter of a black cloud. People, including other cops, were wondering what had happened that warranted such a lengthy hush-hush investigation?

In early May, it finally came out in court documents that the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department had been investigating the two officers in a case involving Smolenski’s former girlfriend.

Smolenski, a Lebanon police officer since 2003, was charged with using fictitious online accounts to stalk the woman and threatening to release details about their sexual encounters.

Smolenski, 43, pleaded not guilty to stalking, a misdemeanor. A status hearing in his case is scheduled for Tuesday in Lebanon District Court.

Gifford, who had cooperated with investigators, was cleared of any wrongdoing. He only got dragged into the investigation when Smolenski allegedly created a Snapchat account to send threatening messages to his former girlfriend under the online name “Paul G.”

But for Gifford, the black cloud remained. Phil Roberts, who was named chief after Mello retired in May, said an internal investigation into the matter still had to be conducted.

Finally in July, Gifford received a phone call from Roberts, who let him know that he had been cleared to return to duty. (After the internal investigation, Smolenski’s employment with the city was terminated, Roberts told me.)

The phone call from Roberts was “obviously, a huge relief,” Gifford said.

But he had “soul searching” to do. Was policing still for him?

Gifford, who grew up in Bethel, became interested in pursuing a law enforcement career in his early 20s. He’d gotten to know several cops while working as a bar manager at Jesse’s restaurant on the Hanover-Lebanon line.

After he was hired in Hanover, it didn’t take Gifford long to show that he’d made the right career move.

“Paul had a way of communicating with people that was down to earth,” said Al Patterson, a retired Hanover patrolman, who served as Gifford’s field training officer. “He brought the humanity into a conversation.”

Gifford took a job with Lebanon police in 2008. Later, he was assigned to the New Hampshire Drug Task Force, administered by the state Attorney General’s Officer, where he spent three years doing undercover work.

Gifford’s stint on the drug task force reinforced his belief that it’s a mistake to judge people solely by the trouble they’re in at a particular moment in time.

“You do become cynical, but you can’t tag everyone a dirt bag,” Gifford said. “Just because someone is addicted to heroin doesn’t mean they chose that lifestyle. Their addiction could have started with painkillers they were taking for a work injury.”

Gifford was back in Lebanon for a couple of years before he got caught up in the investigation into Smolenski’s alleged wrongdoings.

The longer the investigation took, the more Gifford got the feeling that some officers were beginning to assume he really had crossed a line. Why else would his gun and badge be taken away indefinitely?

“People who I thought were my friends judged me,” he said. “I guess I shouldn’t hold it against Lebanon, but I didn’t feel welcome any more.

“I just didn’t feel in my heart that I should go back.”

Roberts, who has worked in Lebanon for more than 20 years, told me that he’d had a good relationship with Gifford and was sorry to see him leave.

“Paul was always very reasonable and level headed,” the chief said. “He treated people fairly.”

Gifford hasn’t left policing completely behind. He’s now a regional sales manager for a software company that deals with law enforcement agencies.

When we talked last week, Gifford was on the road for the “side job” that he’s had for a while. An instructor for Professional Law Enforcement Training, a Dallas-based company, Gifford was teaching a two-day class in drug recognition techniques in Amarillo, Texas.

He no longer wears a uniform, but he hasn’t forgotten why he got in to policing in the first place.

“I wanted to be one of the good cops,” he said.

I think it’s safe to say he accomplished his goal.

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

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