In a broad discussion of potential policing reforms Monday night, elected officials and law enforcement authorities from the Monadnock Region called for greater investment in mental health care while also sparring over issues of police accountability.
State Sen. Jay Kahn, D-Keene, moderated the virtual town hall, which came as New Hampshire lawmakers are drafting the state’s 2022-23 budget and after some have been accused of weakening reforms that a state panel on policing recommended last summer.
The event — organized by the Cheshire County Democrats — focused largely on those recommendations from the Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT). Gov. Chris Sununu, who convened the commission in mid-June after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, endorsed its nearly 50 proposals last September.
Among them, the commission recommended more police training on mental health and substance-use issues, as well as embedding mental health professionals in tactical response teams to reduce the need for police officers to directly handle mental health-related incidents.
Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera praised those proposals Monday, saying that police officers have become a “collect-all” for handling problems like homelessness and mental health. Communities should instead invest in social services to limit police involvement in those situations, according to Rivera.
“History has shown that when you defund any organization … it ends up in the hands of the police,” he said.
Keene Police Chief Steven Russo said his department has been working with Monadnock Family Services, which helps people dealing with mental health issues, for more than a year to find alternatives to a police response in those situations.
Russo said they have struggled to develop solutions, however, and requested that state policymakers offer more support to help police and local organizations respond to mental health crises. Until then, he said, law enforcement officers are often the only available option.
“There are no other resources for us just not to show up,” he said. “… Police show up because there’s no one else to call.”
State Sen. Rebecca Whitley, D-Hopkinton, said Monday that she and other lawmakers are pushing the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services to make crisis response teams available to address mental health emergencies statewide. (Those teams currently exist in Concord, Manchester and Nashua, she said.)
Russo and Hinsdale Police Chief Charles Rataj also voiced approval for new police training requirements that the commission recommended.
If enacted, those policies would mandate that officers receive 24 hours of in-service training each year — up from the existing eight-hour requirement — including at least two hours on each of the following topics: implicit bias, ethics and de-escalation tactics.
Keene police officers already do more than eight hours of training per year, according to Russo, who said the department wouldn’t need to make any substantial changes to comply with the recommended requirements.
“Any increased level of training is going to lead to hopefully better performance,” he said. “… I don’t see any downside other than the cost to taxpayers.”
Russo called the existing requirement “way too light,” adding that a 24-hour requirement is a “no-brainer.” In addition to training reforms, he said police departments must also reconsider how they recruit officers.
A contentious debate Monday centered on the doctrine of qualified immunity — known as “official immunity” in New Hampshire — which protects public officials from civil liability in some situations.
N.H. Rep. Paul Berch, D-Westmoreland, argued that qualified immunity is “the biggest impediment to reform and accountability and transparency that exists in New Hampshire right now.”
Berch, who authored a bill earlier this year that would have eliminated qualified immunity as a defense in lawsuits against public officials — including police officers — that allege violations of constitutional rights, said that legislation was meant to hold officials accountable. (The N.H. House of Representatives voted narrowly against the bill April 9.)
But Rivera, the Cheshire County sheriff, said qualified immunity does not protect officers who violate people’s constitutional or statutory rights, instead shielding them from mundane complaints like disputed parking tickets.
Voicing similar concerns, Rataj said qualified immunity provides recourse only from “frivolous” lawsuits and helps municipalities avoid high legal costs.
“If police officers were sued for everyday judgment … there would be an uncounted number of lawsuits,” he said. “Ultimately, what would happen is a crushing amount of debt on small towns and small cities.”
The LEACT Commission, which recommended only policies that its members agreed on unanimously, didn’t endorse any reform on official immunity.
Noting that the commission’s recommendations were unanimous, Whitley criticized Senate Republicans for weakening a measure that would have required police to collect data on the race and ethnicity of people who interact with law enforcement. Proposed legislation would have given Granite Staters an option to add those attributes to their identification, Whitley said, explaining that it would have kept police from guessing a person’s race or ethnicity.
“We really heard from law enforcement that just having that on the license was the easiest way to do this data collection,” she said.
However, Senate Republicans cut the data-collection requirement last month, saying it resembled racial profiling, and instead proposed a committee to study the issue, according to reporting by The Concord Monitor.
That move drew criticism from multiple LEACT Commission members, including Joseph Lascaze, a justice organizer for the ACLU of New Hampshire, and James McKim of the Manchester NAACP.
Another commission member, Ahni Malachi, said during the town hall Monday that she was pleased with the panel’s recommendations. Malachi, who is executive director of the N.H. Human Rights Commission, said more public awareness on policing practices is needed and also called for greater tolerance in debate around those issues.
“If we can have real conversations where we can talk about what our thoughts are in a way that you’re not vilified for them, then I think we can move forward faster,” she said.
Mackenzie Hopkins and Harry Ryan are on spring break this week, but they were still working diligently Monday morning.
Brick by brick, the Monadnock Regional High School seniors unearthed the cobbles lining the plant beds at Ashuelot River Park in Keene, cleaned them, laid down new stone dust, and replaced them. When they were done, the bricks — which bear the names of area residents who financially supported the park’s creation in 1996, and had sunken down over the years — looked almost new.
Last year, Hopkins and Ryan were among the roughly 45 students from Monadnock and Keene High School’s Interact clubs — the youth branch of Rotary International — who traveled to Puerto Rico, where they repaired hurricane-damaged homes as part of the clubs’ annual joint service trip. In years past, the clubs have traveled to countries including Nicaragua and El Salvador, where they have also performed service projects.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the clubs to cancel the trip and look for a local project. They found it at Ashuelot River Park, where close to 140 students from the two groups will work through Wednesday beautifying the grounds in various ways, including planting several new bushes, weeding all of the flower beds and constructing a new pergola to take the place of the gazebo that had been near the park’s entrance since its inception 25 years ago.
“It sucks that we didn’t get to go to Puerto Rico this year, but I was really excited to get to do this, because it’s actually in our community, and people will get to see it and enjoy it,” Hopkins, a Troy resident, said.
Ryan, who lives in Swanzey, added that the clubs — which are run by students and overseen by advisers who are members of Keene’s two Rotary chapters — have worked together before on smaller area service projects, like volunteering at the Clarence DeMar Marathon, but nothing of this magnitude locally.
“It’s important to give back to the community,” he said. “We’ve done that in a lot of ways, but we’ve never really done a major project in Keene.”
While Hopkins and Ryan were restoring the commemorative bricks Monday, about six members of Keene’s Interact club were busy putting up the frame of the pergola, a freestanding wooden structure that will provide a shaded seating area in the park. They worked with staff members volunteering their time from Bensonwood, the Walpole-based building company that designed the pergola, which will measure roughly 16 by 25 feet and stand about 15 feet tall.
“It’s a very public space in Keene, and it’s close to a lot of things that people do frequently,” Penelope Garcia, a Keene High sophomore who was working on the pergola, said. “So, it’s a commonly used space, and it’s a good thing to be fixing it up.”
Andy Bohannon, the city’s parks, recreation and facilities director, who has worked with the clubs to plan the project over the past six months, said the pergola, which is open at its base, will offer better sightlines than the gazebo did from the park area to the trails that run along the river.
“Since we’ve removed it, and it’s been gone for about three weeks, we’ve actually had really positive comments from the public, just saying it looks so much better now,” Bohannon said. “And when we explained what the project was going to be for the pergola, everybody just really loved it. So we’re excited to see that the community has really embraced the pergola.”
The Interact clubs raised $5,000 each to pay for the pergola, with the city chipping in an additional $5,000. Bohannon added that all of the work this week fits in with the Ashuelot River Park Advisory Board’s climate resilient master plan, which the City Council adopted last June. Among other actions, that plan calls for more thorough weeding of the park’s plant beds to help remove invasive species, and introducing only native plant varieties to the park, both of which the groups are doing this week.
“It’s things that we’d like to do, and don’t necessarily always get to do. And it takes mass effort like this to make it all happen,” Bohannon said, adding that volunteers from the city-appointed park advisory board as well as the nonprofit Friends of Ashuelot River Park are helping with the work this week, too.
This partnership took shape last fall, when the clubs’ advisers saw that the pandemic likely would cancel the trip, and reached out to Bohannon to see what they could do within the city.
“It was pretty clear when the schools went back and weren’t in-person, and as the COVID rate continued to rise, especially as the holidays came on and people came back indoors” that a return to Puerto Rico wouldn’t be possible this year, Marion Lefrancois, an adviser for the Monadnock club, said.
In addition to being a much bigger local service project than the clubs normally do, this year’s is more inclusive, too, because they don’t have to deal with the logistics of overseas travel. The service trip normally caps the number of students at about 45, Lefrancois said.
“But that’s because you’ve got to fly, and it’s expensive,” she said. “With this, we could have everybody. So we wanted something that was big, and also something that would have kind of a lasting impact.”
So, Keene Interact adviser Ranae O’Neil said, the Ashuelot River Park project presented a perfect alternative, and provided a pleasant side effect of the public health crisis.
“With not being able to go internationally, we’ve often had people ask about us doing something here, and it really just kind of opened it up this year with COVID,” she said. “If you want to look at something good about COVID, I think it’s that we are able to do something that’s a bigger project here in our own community, and that’s going to be lasting and help people.”
PETERBOROUGH — The town’s code enforcement officer has reported finding additional zoning violations at the Walden Eco-Village last December and offered more details about the infractions that prompted officials to order the village’s 25 residents to leave their homes at the time.
In an April 20 letter, Code Enforcement Officer Tim Herlihy, who is also the town’s zoning administrator, told Eco-Village owner Akhil Garland that violations at the Middle Hancock Road community include an unauthorized septic expansion, failure to comply with multiple zoning permits and wetlands-related infractions.
To remedy the violations, Garland must obtain town approval for continued use of the 52-acre site and also address the code and wetlands issues, Herlihy wrote. The Peterborough Planning Board is currently considering a proposal from Garland to subdivide and expand the former Eco-Village.
Herlihy’s April letter came about four months after he informed Garland on Dec. 11 that nearly all of the Eco-Village’s structures — which included six residential cottages and eight “casitas,” or tiny homes — had unapproved utilities connections and were unauthorized for use as permanent residences. Those findings followed a site inspection that Herlihy and Peterborough Fire Inspector Lt. Scott Symonds conducted a day earlier, in response to Garland’s subdivision plan.
In his Dec. 11 letter, Herlihy ordered Garland to require that all Eco-Village tenants leave their homes within five days due to the reported code violations, some of which Fire Chief Ed Walker said posed an “immediate danger” to residents.
Herlihy listed those infractions in his April 20 letter and said Garland had also expanded the Eco-Village’s septic system to serve 15 homes, up from its original capacity of seven.
The use of roads on site for residential access and the development of permanent rental housing — rather than temporary shelter for Well School staff, as initially planned — violated a 2006 special exception and a 2010 variance, respectively, according to Herlihy.
Herlihy also wrote that the Eco-Village included unauthorized wetlands crossings and numerous structures built without approval in the town-required buffer around wetlands.
The planning board is scheduled to consider Garland’s subdivision plan on May 10. The proposal includes as many as 21 homes at the former Eco-Village, some of which would come from the existing cottages.
Court case continues
Herlihy’s letter comes nearly a month after Peterborough was added as a third-party defendant in a lawsuit that several former Eco-Village tenants brought against Garland earlier this year.
Arguing that town officials knew of the code violations before last December, Garland and his real estate entities — a family trust that owns the Eco-Village, and his rental management company — had asked the Hillsborough County Superior Court’s northern branch in March to add Peterborough as a defendant in the case. Judge Diane Nicolosi granted that request March 25, according to court records.
As a third-party defendant, Peterborough could be held responsible for any harm to former Eco-Village residents if the court rules that it caused Garland to breach his duties as a landlord by failing to inform him of code violations at the site.
In a March 5 court filing, Garland said the town was aware of those infractions because the town’s previous code enforcement officer knew of the casitas, Eco-Village residents had registered to vote and the fire department had visited the village.
“[Garland] did not know, and could not have known, that any of the representations made ... concerning the Village were improper, materially incorrect or misleading, or that the Town would suddenly reverse course and seek out alleged violations requiring eviction from the property,” the filing states.
Steven J. Dutton, an attorney with the Manchester law firm McLane Middleton who is representing Garland, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a separate court filing late last month, the town of Peterborough denied Garland’s claim that officials knew of the code violations before reporting them and asked the court to dismiss the town from the case. Town Administrator Nicole MacStay declined to comment on the court’s decision to add Peterborough as a third-party defendant Monday, instead referring to Herlihy’s April 20 letter.
Peterborough attorney Jason Bielagus, who is representing the former Eco-Village tenants, said he was “not entirely clear” why the town could be responsible for Garland’s failure to obtain proper zoning permits.
Bielagus said he was not aware that any town officials knew of the code violations before last winter. Even if people handling voter registration or members of the fire department knew the unpermitted structures existed, he argued, it would not mean the town had withheld information from Garland.
“They don’t know what permits have been issued and haven’t been issued,” he said. “They don’t know if stuff is built to code.”