Wolfeboro police commissioner under scrutiny for racist comments about Obama

Last modified: 5/15/2014 12:31:02 AM
A racist remark aimed at President Obama and reportedly made by an elected police official in Wolfeboro has residents calling for the official to step down.

The incident, allegedly involving police Commissioner Robert Copeland, happened in a local restaurant in early March, Jane O’Toole of Wolfeboro said. But only in recent days has it become an issue that’s drawing wider interest.

O’Toole said she plans to attend the Wolfeboro Police Commission meeting tonight and to call for Copeland to resign. She and others are also prepared to request a recall if he refuses to step down. Sixteen other people have committed – through a Facebook page organized around the meeting – to attend.

Copeland and another commissioner, Ron Goodgame, did not return calls seeking comment last night. But commission Chairman Joseph Balboni said he has no plans to ask Copeland to resign.

“I think it’s crazy. Bob is a very nice person, and he’s been very generous to the town of Wolfeboro,” Balboni said.

“He’s worked with a lot of blacks in his life. . . . He said some harsh words about Mr. Obama, and here we are. This woman, she’s blowing it all out of proportion.”

Balboni said he does plan to allow attendees at the meeting to speak their minds, unless the meeting becomes repetitive.

O’Toole said she had no intention of becoming involved in local politics when she moved to Wolfeboro in November.

“I vote, I’ve always voted, but I have no desire to run for any kind of office or get involved in politics,” O’Toole said yesterday. “I just happened to be at a restaurant at the wrong time.”

She said the incident happened at Nolan’s Brick Oven Bistro. It was March 6 – O’Toole said she remembers because it was the same day she had an appointment at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, marking eight years as cancer-free.

While she was finishing up a celebratory dinner, a man sitting nearby at the bar said loudly that he hates watching television, because every time he turns it on, he sees “that f------ n-----.”

As she left the room, she asked him whether he was “throwing the n-word around,” O’Toole said. “He sort of swung around and puffed up his chest and said, ‘Yeah,’ and . . . I said, ‘Not good, not good at all.’ ”

She didn’t plan to do anything else about it. She didn’t know who he was until the next day when she went back to the restaurant. That’s when the staff told her his name and position in town. She later watched videos of the police commission’s meeting to see whether he was indeed the same man.

She said she didn’t know what to do, and so she didn’t do anything – for a while. When town elections rolled around the next week, she didn’t vote for him, though he ran unopposed and won a second term.

“At that point, it really started to bother me that this was an elected official, making these loud racist statements. But I talked to a few people in town and they said, ‘Just leave it, what good is it going to do?’ But talking to more people I knew, I got the impression this wasn’t the type of town that was going to be like that. It was going to be more supportive of me. No one sounded surprised,” O’Toole said.

So she wrote a letter of complaint to the town manager. He wrote back and said the town doesn’t oversee the commission, and said she would have to take her complaint there.

She wrote to Balboni and Goodgame. And when Copeland responded instead, she took the whole thing to the local weekly paper.

The Granite State News published a version of her letter to the town, and a response reportedly written by Copeland.

“While I believe the problems associated with minorities in this country are momentous, I am not phobic. My use of derogatory slang in reference to those among them undeserving of respect is no secret. It is the exercise of my 1st Amendment rights,” it read. “I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse (sic). For this I do not apologize – he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”

While the board of selectmen can’t take action against a member of the police commission, Chairwoman Linda Murray said she will be at the meeting tonight.

“The laws give certain authority to the police commission, and I don’t want to step over those bounds. But I think the letter the board wrote says they don’t condone, they don’t want to hear that kind of language in any public official,” Murray said last night. “I feel Mrs. O’Toole did what was appropriate. She informed the public. There are people in the public who are coming out dismayed by the kind of language and disrespect for the president of the United States, and they are going to stand up.”

One of them is Brian Murphy, a former Concord police officer and retired head of security for St. Paul’s School.

He first heard about Copeland’s remarks on Facebook, and he has been trying to create momentum behind calls for the commissioner to resign.

“I don’t believe he has any place in town positions. I don’t think he represents the town, and he certainly doesn’t represent the town well. I hope he resigns, but I don’t have high hopes considering what he’s done so far, so I would like to pursue a recall if he doesn’t,” Murphy said.

Copeland’s comments about minorities are “out of order,” Murphy said. “Who knows what his thinking is on minorities in general? I don’t know if he dislikes Italians? Or Irishmen? Or if he just feels this way about blacks? It doesn’t seem that he’s a fair-minded person, but he’s on a commission making judgments, and I would think his thinking like this could influence those judgments.”

The duties of a police commission under New Hampshire law include hiring, firing and disciplining personnel, and setting their salaries.

O’Toole said she still has no plans to get more involved in town politics and is nervous about tonight’s meeting. She is bolstered, she said, by a positive response from people she doesn’t know.

“I do believe maybe some good will come out of it,” she said. “Maybe it will encourage people to speak up, to not just giggle if someone uses these terms, not shy away, but say it’s unacceptable. It’s not easy, but it’s important.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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