Police willing to talk, agree more work needs to be done

  • Hundreds gather at Greeley Park in Nashua for Black Lives Matter vigil. Christina Phillips—NHPR

  • Nashua Police Department —Nashua Telegraph file

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 7/19/2021 4:49:22 PM

Just days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer, Nashua residents gathered on Zoom to talk about it.

During the two-hour discussion, Police Chief Michael Carignan fielded dozens of questions, ranging from inquiries about the department’s cultural competency training to its outreach with local youth. Though this was the first virtual iteration, these discussions have been taking place for more than five years through a collaborative initiative called Nashua Community Conversations on Race and Justice – and organizers say the program has significantly improved community-police relations within the city during that time.

It started in 2014 when members of Southern New Hampshire Outreach for Black Unity approached the Nashua Police Department with an invitation to their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast, according to NCCRJ Co-Chair Linda Harriott-Gathright. After the then-chief and deputy chief accepted, the groups started talking about ways to work together and got other local organizations, such as the Granite State Organizing Project and the MIRA Coalition, involved to form what would become Nashua Community Conversations on Race and Justice.

Harriott-Gathright, a Democratic state representative and president of the Greater Nashua Area NAACP, said the first public conversation event held at Rivier University in 2015 drew more than 200 attendees.

Since then, the group facilitated several more forums like it and coordinated similar discussions with students at both of Nashua’s high schools, in addition to opening a community center. At each event, attendees are divided into small discussion groups with an officer, facilitator and someone to take notes at each table. Participants and officers have the opportunity to share their perspectives and ask questions of one another, while the facilitator guides the discussion.

However, there has been little change since the conversations started in the department’s arrest statistics, which show Black and Hispanic individuals were taken into custody at higher rates compared to the percentage of their racial groups in the city. And Carignan acknowledges that there is still work to be done to create a more diverse and culturally competent department.

“I don’t care who you are, what color you are, what gender you are, you have implicit biases toward other things or other people. I think it’s normal; you have your life experiences,” Carignan said. “What we try to do is hire good, smart people who are open-minded enough to know that it’s a continuous journey and able to be open-minded enough to say, what is it about this culture that I can connect to?”

Carignan said the ongoing community conversations have “opened officers’ eyes” to what people of color are thinking and feeling when stopped by police, such as the anxiety they experience when multiple officers respond to a minor traffic incident.

In Harriott-Gathright’s view, many residents are no longer afraid to speak up when they have issues with the department.

“I think what we’ve built in the city at this point is that we’re able to get people to call and complain, to have that conversation, to have the officers trained in diversity and inclusion,” she said.

Carignan pointed to peaceful protests in Nashua following the police killing of George Floyd as one piece of evidence that the community conversation initiative is working; more than 1,000 people attended the vigil for Black lives lost to police violence in June 2020.

“The whole event was very, very peaceful, it was very respectful. Both sides respected and appreciated each other,” Carignan said. “I think that only comes from the past four or five years of honest, sincere attempts to continue to try to get better at those relationships with each other.”

Andrea Headley, an assistant professor of public policy at Georgetown University and a visiting scholar on race, policing and crime at the National Police Foundation, said this kind of public outreach is an essential aspect of community policing, a law enforcement strategy that emphasizes collaboration and relationship-building with residents.

She said this outreach should not just be window dressing or “checking a box” for police departments – and the public should be an integral part of shaping department operations at every level, from policy to training.

“Even if the best intentions are there, there’s no way we can say that we know what the community wants without engaging and asking and really seriously going into dialogue with the community to identify the wants and needs,” Headley said. “And it should come from them as opposed to being imposed upon them.”

Jordan Thompson, a founder of Black Lives Matter Nashua and a racial justice organizer for ACLU New Hampshire, said he’s seen a change in the local culture around interactions with police since the initiative started. He attributed the group’s success partly to the fact that it’s been a collaboration led by the community.

He noted that for many people of color, police departments do not feel like safe spaces, so it’s important for law enforcement to recognize the sacrifices those residents are making in coming to the table, and to take on a proactive role in starting these dialogues.

“There’s been kind of a shared responsibility while also acknowledging, of course, the power dynamic that exists, that of course this is still the police department and we’re dealing with communities of color,” Thompson said. “And there’s a really fragile relationship there because of the history of policing and the current values of policing in America.”

Thompson said he’s now working to bring more youth voices into the effort, and hopes the group can continue to work with local schools once the COVID-19 pandemic allows. He said there’s always more work to be done and that he supports a “reimagining” of police, including reallocating funding to public education and social programs that address the root causes of crime – a point on which he and his colleagues in Nashua Community Conversations on Race and Justice don’t always see eye to eye.

“We have disagreements – Mike (Carignan) and I disagree on things all the time. It’s a great thing that we’re able to come together at the same table and say, okay, we disagree on these things, but we agree on other things,” Thompson said. “And at the end of the day, we’re at least having the conversation.”

Still, some question the overall validity of community policing, especially when it comes to solving issues like excessive use of force. Kimya Nuru Dennis, a former professor of sociology and criminology who now works as a diversity consultant in Baltimore, said she sees the concept as a “catchphrase” that police departments use to distract from misconduct.

“Community policing can include something like Coffee with a Cop, or police departments that will do things like have basketball tournaments, cookouts, typically in Black neighborhoods and Black parts of cities. Oftentimes they’ll get Black police to do this,” Dennis said. “But the data does not change because of that. It does not end issues such as police use of force, it does not end issues such as racial profiling.”

Headley said community policing strategies primarily target community-police relations. A 2014 systematic research review published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology found that though “community-oriented policing strategies” had a positive effect on citizen perceptions, the effect on crime and fear of crime was limited.

The same holds true in Nashua, where perceptions have changed more than arrest statistics. Statewide, police disproportionately arrest people of color, and that applies for Nashua as well. U.S. Census estimates from 2019 show that roughly 12.7% of Nashua’s population identified as Hispanic or Latino, while 4.1% of the population was Black or African American. But that year, 16.2% of people arrested by the department were Hispanic or Latino, while 11.3% were Black or African American, according to state data.

In 2015, when Nashua Community Conversations on Race and Justice first launched, 15.6% of arrestees in the city were Hispanic or Latino though that group made up just 11.5% of the population. Similarly, 7.3% of arrestees that year were Black or African American, while that segment accounted for only 3.1% of the population.

Thompson said he was “disappointed but not surprised” to hear about the disparate arrest rates. William Pease, accreditation manager for the police department, partly attributed this disparity to arrests of nonresidents who may be coming to Nashua from more diverse areas.

“The geography of the city makes a difference, because on any given night on the weekends, people from Massachusetts come up to different places around Nashua,” Pease said.

According to the department’s 2020 reaccreditation report, Nashua police also use force disproportionately. The report, which categorizes uses of force by type and often identifies multiple uses of force within one incident, documented 256 uses of force in 2019. About 15% of those were used against Hispanic or Latino people, while about 8% targeted Black people, the report shows.

Pease said police used force in 153 incidents in 2020, while there were 2,535 custody arrests, including protective custody arrests. “We’re using force in less than 6% of all our arrests,” he said. “That’s not very much.”

Of those, 112 of the people police used force against were white, while 27, or about 18%, were Hispanic or Latino, and 12, or about 8% were Black or African American. According to Pease, 22% of use-of-force incidents involved people who were not Nashua residents.

In 2014, force was used in 168 incidents, though he said total custody arrest figures from that year were calculated differently and can’t be compared to 2020’s total. Use-of-force was not broken out by race and ethnicity in the department’s 2015 accreditation report.

Headley said that while community engagement strategies can help improve relationships between residents and law enforcement, they should be just one part of a multi-pronged approach to improving police departments.

“Unless you’re doing things to specifically target specific outcomes, like changing a use-of-force policy or implementing some really clear prohibitions against using racist decision-making cues or doing something that can directly impact a negative outcome, there sometimes can be a disconnect,” Headley said. “And so, it’s not enough to do one without the other.”

The department runs a use-of-force training annually, Carignan said, and has not allowed chokeholds for several years. He said the department’s policies are continually being updated and that its use-of-force policy was reviewed this year by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

Carignan also said use of force isn’t necessary unless people don’t comply with police, and he wishes this was a larger part of the discussion around the issue.

“We train (officers) as best we can, we hire the right people, we work so hard to make sure we’re able to de-escalate. But it can’t be a one way street,” he said.

The department’s current focus is on hiring quality applicants and diversifying its ranks, as well as improving training for officers, he said. In 2020, the department had 176 sworn officers, according to Carignan, and of those officers, two, or about 1%, were Black, six, or about 3.4%, were Hispanic or Latino and four, or 2.3%, were another race not specified. About 93% of sworn officers that year were white, while the city’s 2015 accreditation report reported that about 95% of the department’s sworn officers were white.

When asked if racism or bias are issues within his department, Carignan said his view is that any person, police officer or not, has implicit bias. He said the department thoroughly vets applicants based on education, psychological evaluations and life experience to try to weed out those with significant bias, and requires cultural competency and implicit bias training.

He also sees NCCRJ as part of that effort.

Harriott-Gathright pointed to training as an area she’d like to see the department work on, while Thompson would like to see more accountability around police spending.

All three agreed that creating a place to talk about these issues has been good for Nashua.

“All communities should really start a real community conversation with their police department. Every community should be about that,” Harriott-Gathright said. “And it should not be just one person – it should be a community effort.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.


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