Proposal to defund Lebanon police gets mixed reception from councilors, residents

  • Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello speaks on his policing philosophy and major issues impacting his department during a forum on law enforcement at Seminary Hill School in West Lebanon, N.H. Tuesday, May 30, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News
Published: 11/20/2020 5:29:06 PM
Modified: 11/20/2020 5:28:53 PM

A proposal to cut Lebanon’s $6.3 million police budget in half to better fund social service programs received a mixed response from city officials who appear to favor a smaller, more incremental approach to addressing issues surrounding homelessness, mental health and food insecurity.

Members of the Lebanon City Council declined Wednesday to support the Upper Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America’s “Care Not Cops” plan, which seeks to partially defund the police department and reinvest in “critical community needs.”

Mayor Tim McNamara said at the end of a more than three-hour meeting Wednesday night that he doesn’t support the DSA’s plan and additional money for social services should come from state coffers, not Lebanon taxpayers.

“We are, in many ways, unfortunate to live in a state where there is no regional support or very little regional support for a lot of the issues that were identified tonight,” he said.

Opponents of the proposal also attempted to paint DSA members and their allies as activists who don’t live in Lebanon and are trying to bring a national issue to the city.

“DSA is a national group that is primarily funded worldwide. They’re not community residents, although they’ve infiltrated into our community,” said Al Patterson, a retired Hanover police officer.

Curt Jacques, the owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply who started the counter-campaign “Support Our Lebanon Police,” also said the DSA members may have come to Lebanon “recently.”

“Maybe they’re studying here or whatever and maybe they’ve had issues in other parts of the country,” Jacques said before pointing out that he’s lived in Lebanon for 34 years.

The Upper Valley DSA chapter consists of just under 100 people, and most who spoke in its favor Wednesday said they live within Lebanon’s city limits.

The group’s 22-page proposal calls for money traditionally used for policing to go instead to new initiatives, such as the creation of a full-time community safety and wellness position, or be funneled into local nonprofits already working to help city residents.

But while they opposed cuts to police funding, councilors said some aspects of the plan – including increasing the roughly $500,000 that Lebanon allocates for human services – should be seriously considered in ongoing budget discussions.

“This is certainly a good starting point for discussion,” said Councilor Jim Winny, a social worker at Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital. “I see some things to support in the DSA proposal and would be willing to talk about some of those things in future meetings.”

However, finding money in an already tight 2021 budget that might result in the layoffs of three full-time city employees could prove difficult.

The council discussion came after DSA members advocated for “Care Not Cops” before an audience of about 150 people who watched the meeting online. About 40 commented on the plans, including 30 who were in favor of trimming police funding.

“If we want a truly safe and welcoming community, we need to allocate more attention and resources to addressing poverty, mental health, housing and security, hunger and addiction,” said Lebanon resident and DSA member Rendi Rogers. “That’s the choice we have to make and we have the resources to make it happen.”

Rogers and DSA member Rory Gawler said “Care Not Cops” aims to improve the quality of life in Lebanon by diverting funding away from traffic stops and efforts to curtail low-level drug crime to instead tackle the root causes of those problems.

Gawler, a Lebanon resident and the general manager of the Dartmouth Outing Club, said police aren’t given the tools to solve society’s woes and shouldn’t be expected to.

“Instead, a law enforcement response simply reacts to and suppresses the symptoms of the problem,” Gawler said. “The act of policing cannot combat poverty, house the homeless, provide substance misuse support or address mental health issues.”

Gawler advocated for the creation of a 911 redirect program that could see social workers and mental health professionals responding to nonviolent calls, along with the hiring of a community safety and wellness officer that would coordinate with service providers and the city.

The plan also calls for more money for existing social service groups, such as Twin Pines Housing Trust, Listen Community Services, West Central Behavioral Health, Headrest, WISE and the Upper Valley Haven.

The DSA’s proposal has faced opposition from Police Chief Richard Mello, who said last month that cuts to the 35-member force would have a “catastrophic result on public safety.”

He assessed the department’s manpower in 2016, and found that the city needs 26 full-time patrol officers to meet the “basic minimum” of services residents expect. At the time, 22 of Lebanon’s 33 officers were assigned to the patrol division.

The Lebanon Police Department Benevolent Association also opposes the DSA proposal, saying police have prevented crime and kept the community safe while forming community partnerships.

“Lebanon residents and business owners should be aware of the exceptional service provided with compassion and courage by the Lebanon Police,” Detective Brady Harwood, the union’s vice president, wrote in an October letter to the City Council.

Harwood went on to say the Lebanon police were among the first in the Upper Valley to be equipped with body cameras, and are trained to assist people suffering from mental health-related problems.

However, city resident Christine Croitoru said that two Lebanon police were placed on leave in May without any explanation to the public, and seven police officers who served on the Lebanon force are on the state’s Exculpatory Evidence Schedule, also known as the Laurie List, of officers with misconduct or credibility issues.

Of those officers, only one currently works for the department, Mello told the Valley News in 2018.

Others said the police department’s ongoing recruitment of new officers while layoffs elsewhere are threatened is a sign that the budget needs to be trimmed.

“There’s obviously a budget issue here if the police department is actively recruiting while other essential departments are being cut,” said Lebanon resident Tommy Blake.

(Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.)




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