Activists seek to cut Lebanon police budget in half

  • 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: 10/27/2020 6:34:37 PM

Upper Valley activists are asking the city to cut its police budget in half by the start of 2022 and instead invest in “critical community needs” such as housing, health care and food assistance.

The movement, backed by a petition drive, has spurred a counter-petition backed by merchants and some other residents.

The Upper Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, or DSA, on Wednesday night unveiled its “Care Not Cops” proposal that its members hope to present to city officials next month.

The chapter consists of just under 100 people who advocate for “an economy and government that works for people and values human needs over greed and profit,” according to Rory Gawler, a DSA member and Lebanon resident.

Its 22-page document argues that Lebanon’s $6.3 million police budget outstrips other priorities — including the roughly $500,000 the city allocates for human services — and should be pared back.

The plan — part of a national effort to cut police budgets and reinvest those dollars in social services — also critiques the city-run police force for an “unusually high” number of traffic stops, disproportionate focus on drug and alcohol crime and inability to handle the societal woes often thrown officers’ way. “Care, not cops” is a slogan of the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to eradicate systemic racism, white supremacy and violence against Black people.

“Policing cannot deliver mental health services, provide substance abuse support, house the homeless, or combat poverty; rather, policing provides a reactive and suppressive response to the symptoms of these problems,” the proposal said. “Addressing the causes of these issues requires reducing the role of policing in our community and implementing alternative services and approaches.”

In addition to merchants and other residents, some city officials have said they oppose cuts to public safety.

Lebanon Police Chief Richard Mello is among them.

“I certainly understand that there is a need for additional funding across the state for mental health and other social services,” he wrote in an email Tuesday. “However, this funding should not come from defunding the Lebanon Police Department’s budget.”

Slashing the police budget in half would have a “catastrophic result on public safety” and lead to “significant layoffs,” Mello said.

“The reductions would further result in unintended consequences and leave the city, along with its residents and businesses less secure, which is in direct opposition to the city’s Master Plan to provide for a safe, secure and livable community,” he said.

Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara is also wary of the proposal.

“My initial thinking is that I am certainly not in support of any significant defunding of the police department,” he said Tuesday. “While I’m willing to hear this, I’m, at this point, not disposed to supporting any defunding of the police department.”

The Upper Valley DSA argues that its plan would improve residents’ quality of life by reallocating money to key initiatives.

Its suggestions include the creation of a full-time community safety and wellness position that could coordinate with mental health and substance abuse agencies and respond to unarmed, nonviolent situations involving addiction, mental health or homelessness.

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

“I know that this can be scary for people but I think that if they can take a look at our proposal, I hope they would see that we’ve really done our homework and that there’s good evidence out there that this will make our community safer,” Gawler, the general manager of the Dartmouth Outing Club, said Thursday.

A Valley Newsanalysis of six Upper Valley police department budgets in June found that Lebanon offers a higher degree of coverage per-resident than many of its neighbors.

Its 35 full-time officers amount to 2.56 per 1,000 residents, second on the list only to Windsor, whose 10-officer roster equals 3.03 officers per 1,000 residents.

And while Lebanon’s police budget takes up a smaller percentage of city spending than it did a decade ago (the city’s operating budget is now $36.8 million), City Manager Shaun Mulholland attributed that to increases in other areas, such as public works, while pointing to costs related to an ongoing $75 million combined sewer overflow project.

But Mello, who was hired in 2015, has argued that Lebanon needs more officers patrolling its streets and responding to emergency calls, not fewer, in part because the city is the employment, shopping and health care hub of the Upper Valley.

He assessed the department’s manpower in 2016, determining 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.

“It is not possible to pull four employees from other divisions to address this shortage,” Mello wrote. “This shortage could only be addressed through adding positions to the agency.”

A 2017 federal grant helped pay for two additional officers, but Mello says the department is still short of its goals.

Besides the mayor, at least one other councilor also signaled that the Upper Valley DSA’s plan will face an uphill battle when the City Council starts its review of the 2021 budget next month.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill, who recently chaired Lebanon’s Fair and Impartial Policing Task Force, said she won’t support the cuts.

“It’s my personal opinion that cutting the police department budget by 50% is not an appropriate way to meet the needs of our community,” she said.

Instead, Liot Hill said, the city needs to encourage more partnerships between law enforcement and social services.

“We know that, for example, people who are in a mental health crisis, when they call 911, they need to be connected with mental health professionals,” she said, alluding to a $500,000 federal grant West Central Behavioral Health is seeking to launch a mobile crisis team to respond in person to mental health crises.

Opponents of the DSA proposal also started collecting signatures on a counter-petition, called “Support Our Lebanon Police.”

Curt Jacques, the owner of West Lebanon Feed & Supply and organizer of the counter-petition, said the police department’s budget is justified, given the city’s status as a regional hub and home to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“Lebanon really bears the brunt of services. We have more people in our community on any given day than live here,” he said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for emergency services, he argued, saying police are needed to back up shops and local businesses enforcing Lebanon’s mask mandate.

Jacques recalled an incident several months ago in which a customer who was carrying a firearm challenged his store’s mask mandate before an employee was able to convince him to put one on.

“This is a very volatile situation,” he said. “We want to be safe. We want to make sure we have a response from our police department in the event of an emergency like this.”

The Upper Valley DSA says its plan would take two years to implement. For 2021, it is calling for a freeze on police capital purchases and hiring, a halt on discretionary training and restrictions on overtime.

For 2022, the DSA is requesting staff cuts, a 50% reduction in routine traffic stops, the creation of a 911 call redirect program and replacement of school resource officers with social workers.

The activists plan to make their pitch for reforms during the City Council’s Nov. 18 meeting. City officials say additional public hearings on the municipal budget will be held Dec. 2 and 18.

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


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