Three years after losing local police, Salisbury content with state troopers
A packed house awaits information about the resignation of two members of the Salisbury police department, Chief Frank Jones and Sgt. Dan Shapiro, at the Salisbury selectmen's meeting held in Academy Hall in Salisbury, NH. Despite the recent resignations, no new information was released to the crowd on Wednesday, November 17, 2010.
(Bryan Thomas/Monitor Staff)
In Salisbury, whether you call the cops about a suspicious car or report an active domestic assault, the New Hampshire State Police will show up. No matter the seriousness of the incident, time of day or day of the week, state troopers will respond to any call you make from this town of 1,382 people.
For three years now, they’ve been the only police in town – and residents say it’s working.
Although Salisbury never set out to eliminate its police department – its two-man force quit in November 2010 – residents rejected a motion at last year’s town meeting to add money back to the police budget for new officers. That leaves Salisbury the only town in Merrimack County without its own police force, even a part-time one.
People in Salisbury point to two factors they say show the system is working: Calls are down by 50 percent since 2009, and the selectmen say they haven’t received a single complaint.
“I have been so impressed with the state police; they always seem to go above and beyond anything I ever expected from them,” said Ken Ross-Raymond, chairman of the board of selectmen. “They’ve been doing a fantastic job for us up here.”
This raises questions that nearby communities have wrangled with over the years: Do small New Hampshire towns really need their own police departments? And, if they eliminate them, what are they losing?
“It’s not scientifically possible to show what a cop riding through the town in a marked police car prevents,” Merrimack County Sheriff Scott Hilliard said.
But “we do know by years of policing that prevention does occur through visibility. If it didn’t, why would we go to the expense of putting the markers on the cars and all that stuff? It’s not for an advertisement purpose.”
No more cops
Until late 2010, Salisbury had two part-time police officers, who between them worked 40 hours and were paid out of a $58,000 budget. But in November of that year, Chief Frank Jones and Sgt. Dan Shapiro both quit, citing a hostile work environment.
In the months after the police quit, the selectmen interviewed several candidates for part-time chief, asked the sheriff’s department about coverage and reached out to neighboring communities about contracting services. Webster’s chief offered to provide services for a monthly fee.
But in a communitywide survey, respondents overwhelmingly said they preferred using the state police, which doesn’t charge for services. With the part-time force, the state police were already providing the majority of the town’s coverage. The town now keeps $12,000 in its police budget, in case it needs extra detail for an event or an unexpected situation occurs.
The selectmen have encouraged residents and the state police to share concerns with them, but no one has raised an issue directly with the selectmen, Ross-Raymond said. Resident Greg Slossar proposed restoring the police budget at last year’s town meeting, but his motion was defeated. Slossar did not respond to a request for comment.
Several state police employees say Salisbury hasn’t required noticeably more attention or support than other small communities that do have departments.
“One of the things the state police was designed for (is) these small areas that don’t have police departments or even part-time police departments,” said Sgt. Ronald Taylor of Troop D.
In fact, Salisbury residents are calling the police far less than they used to. According to selectmen’s minutes, the Salisbury police responded to an average of 54 calls per month in 2009. In 2012 and 2013, the state police responded to an average of 24 calls per month, according to records provided to the town. The town office did not have police logs from 2009 that show the types of calls the town police were receiving, making it difficult to assess what types of calls have fallen off.
Troop D, which covers Salisbury, is in charge of Merrimack County and the interstate system. On the overnight shifts, it’s the primary responder in many towns, meaning response times can vary. Taylor said the state police try to locate troopers to avoid long delays, but waits can exceed 20 minutes. Call logs from last November, for example, show it took troopers 22 minutes to respond to one car accident, 18 for a domestic dispute and 20 for a burglar alarm.
“The only difference would be is if we are tied up on, say, a major incident, and somebody (in Salisbury) calls and says that their mailbox had been broken, we (have) to prioritize things,” Taylor said.
To several townspeople, the change in police coverage has been insignificant. Katie Mason, part-owner of the Barn Store of New England on Old Turnpike Road, said there was a burglary at the store when the town did have a local police force, and it was the state police who responded.
Gene Spaulding, another resident, said Salisbury is a small and quiet town. When things do happen, like when his wife hit a deer, the state police have been there.
“It just seems that we’re always covered,” he said.
Last month, 14 state troopers responded to a domestic assault in Salisbury that turned into a manhunt when one suspect fled into the woods and fired a shotgun. The state police deployed a helicopter with infrared cameras to search the woods, and the suspect was caught. The police, including some from the sheriff’s office and neighboring departments, were on the scene for nearly seven hours.
In these major incidents, it’s typical for a number of law enforcement agencies to respond. Salisbury resident Jacob Mason, also part-owner of the Barn Store, said he thinks it would be more effective if small towns in New Hampshire cut their own departments and relied on regional forces.
“I think that it’s too much cost for all these small towns to be paying for individual police departments,” he said.
Loss of coverage?
But state and other local police officials say that what’s apparently working in Salisbury won’t necessarily work elsewhere.
“We’re always going to help out; however, if there was a move to the state police covering all the towns less than 3,000, we certainly would have to increase our numbers,” said Major Russell Conte.
A regional force, like Mason suggested, also exists to a degree in the county sheriff’s department, which assists communities in assault investigations, among other things. In Salisbury, the sheriff’s office runs the D.A.R.E. program and signs off on pistol permits. But a full-blown regional crime force can only work if every community supports it as the primary means of law enforcement, said Hilliard, the Merrimack County sheriff.
“I have no doubt regional policing would be effective, but you need community buy-in from everyone,” he said.
By giving up a local police department, towns sacrifice things that are hard to measure. The numbers in Salisbury prove people are calling the police far less than they used to.
“The numbers that you’re seeing are, in my opinion, partially because people know they don’t have a police force and they think to themselves, ‘What’s the sense of calling about that suspicious car?’ ” Hilliard said.
A police force’s primary duty is prevention, Hilliard said, and if criminals know that Salisbury doesn’t have a force based right in town, they may be more likely to attempt crimes in the town. Not having a local force regularly patrolling can also make coverage more reactive than proactive. In Boscawen, for example, the police’s regular activities include motor vehicle stops and visits to schools and businesses. Hill and Danbury, both smaller than Salisbury, have their own part-time departments with a shared chief.
“I think local departments get to know the characters, you build a little trust and you can do a lot of preventative law enforcement that doesn’t come from a purely reactive police department,” Hill and Danbury Chief David Kratz said.
Taylor, however, said the state police do have a presence in Salisbury sufficient for their officers to know store owners and other residents.
“They seem like a real nice town,” he said. “We’ve become very familiar with a lot of the business owners and other people. We see them regularly.”
Other communities have considered, but not pursued, eliminating their departments. In Webster, moves to cut the police budget and get rid of the force failed at several recent town meetings. Hill voters float the idea every few years, but it’s never gained traction. In every town, it’s up to the voters to weigh the pros and cons – and live with the consequences.
“The residents of the community make their own choice, and I respect their decision,” Hilliard said. “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”
(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3390 or email@example.com or on Twitter @kronayne.)