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Swanzey voters decide to put full new fire station back on the ballot
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SWANZEY — After failing to secure enough votes for a new central fire station last year, Swanzey officials have proposed constructing an incomplete station to lower the cost. But voters at the town’s deliberative session Wednesday night didn’t want to settle for an unfinished facility.

In the only change to the warrant, voters chose to amend the fire station proposal, which originally called for the town to raise $3,575,000 to fund the project, with $200,000 to be raised by taxes, $375,000 from undesignated fund balance and $3 million to be bonded. Town resident Joe Smith called for the amount to be bonded to be raised by $377,563, for a total cost of $3,952,563.

Last year, residents narrowly voted down the proposed 12,000-square-foot station, which — as in this latest plan — would have been built on town-owned property at 321 Old Homestead Highway (Route 32). While a simple majority of voters were in favor of the project, the measure failed to garner the three-fifths majority required. This year’s proposal would also require a supermajority to pass.

The town has two additional fire stations, both of which would remain open if the new facility is constructed.

The proposal was a main topic of debate at Wednesday’s deliberative session, which had been postponed from Tuesday due to inclement weather. The meeting was at Whitcomb Hall but viewable on Zoom, though those who wanted to participate were required to attend in person, wear a mask and maintain social distance.

This year will be the town’s fourth time putting a proposed new fire station to a vote since 2015. The current central fire station is in the basement of town hall, and has fallen out of compliance with building codes, Fire Chief William Gould said last month. He also said fire operations sometimes interfere with town business being conducted upstairs.

In an effort to cut down on costs, the town has proposed leaving some elements of the project — such as training rooms and work areas — incomplete, to be finished later. But Meghan Foley, a member of the fire department who spoke in favor of Smith’s amendment, stressed the importance of having a completed facility, saying doing the project in stages “cuts corners.”

“I could not in good faith ask voters to support such a project that would be an unfinished version of what they were asked to approve at town meeting last year,” Foley said. She added that the office and training areas are just as important as other elements of a fire station.

Foley formerly worked as a reporter and editor at The Sentinel. She and other firefighters participated in a public hearing last month, when they also urged voters to fully fund the project.

The amendment also received support from Jane Johnson, a former state representative who said issues with the current station are not going away and that it’s time to move forward with the new building. She said Swanzey is growing, and a central fire station that can accommodate that growth is important.

“People are moving to this area, especially since the pandemic,” she said. “So we need to be ready for that.”

The amendment passed by a show of hands.

In addition to the new fire station, Swanzey voters will be asked to consider a petition article to bond $600,000 to replace an out-of-service fire engine, permit the town to develop an asset-management system for Swanzey’s wastewater collection system for $30,000 and appropriate money to various town trust funds and capital reserve accounts. Voters will also be asked to approve the town’s proposed $6,716,500 operating budget.

Voting is scheduled for March 9 between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the Monadnock Regional Middle/High School gym. A copy of the warrant, budget documents and other town meeting materials can be found online at www.swanzeynh.gov/alert — detail.php.

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Police Academy expands implicit bias training from two hours to two days

Two police officers are dispatched to a home in response to a call from a domestic violence victim. They are told the perpetrator remains on the scene. The cops arrive and find a bruised woman splayed on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. Two other persons are in the house, a man and a woman. The man is taciturn and remorseful. He tells the officers, “I’m sorry; this will never happen again.” The woman, who stands next to the abused, echoes the same words.

The officers pull the man aside and say, “Sir, can we talk with you over here.”

As a classroom of police recruits review this role-playing scenario with actors, they learn an essential flaw of the officers’ response: they left the injured party alone with the attacker.

This scenario exemplifies how biases, based on gender or race, for example, manifest in policing, producing dangerous consequences, said Lorie Fridell, a criminology professor at the University of South Florida and founder of Fair & Impartial Policing (FIP), a nationally-recognized implicit-bias-awareness training for law enforcement in the U.S. and Canada.

Members of New Hampshire’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community and Transparency (LEACT) attended Fridell’s program last year to help brainstorm a new two-day seminar on implicit bias training in the Granite State that launched at the police academy on Jan. 14.

The expanded program for police recruits is one of 48 recommendations the LEACT committee advanced after meeting during the summer months. The 16 hours of implicit bias training draws on the philosophies from the FIP program. It also models lesson plans from Ohio’s Peace Officer Basic Training for Community Diversity & Procedural Justice.

In the Granite State, all newly hired part-time and full-time police and state-level corrections officers are trained and certified by the N.H. Police Standards and Training Council in Concord. There are no tuition students. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the 16-week academy is currently held on Zoom.

Previously, New Hampshire’s police recruits received two hours of training in cultural dynamics, which John Scippa, who directs the Standards and Training Council, acknowledges has never been enough.

The two-day N.H. Community Diversity, Police Legitimacy & Procedural Justice program addresses implicit biases around race, age, gender, socioeconomic or other statuses, explaining that everyone carries them, said Scippa. The goal is to help recruits resolve disputes fairly and transparently, based on facts and circumstances, and to improve relationships between police and the public.

Policing is one of those jobs that require perfection every day, said Standards and Training Council instructor Eddie Edwards, who was the former director of the N.H. Liquor Commission Enforcement Division and a retired police chief from South Hampton. Like an airplane pilot, faulty judgements by an officer could spell disaster, he says. Policing demands neutrality and transparency 100 percent of the time, delivering, “In a big nutshell, honesty and respect” toward community members.

The most engaging section of the two-day course, said Scippa, is the panel discussion where new hires interact with representatives from diverse groups, including African Americans, Hispanic and other non-whites as well as LGBTQ and religious constituents.

Joseph Lascaze, a “smart justice” organizer with the N.H. American Civil Liberties Union and a LEACT committee member, is one of the panelists. A social justice organizer, he helped write the materials for the class.

“It was a huge relief, being a person of color,” knowing the Standards and Training Council was revising a course that previously “wasn’t even in the 21st century,” Lascaze said.

Lascaze, who is Black, understands the mistrust and frustration the African American community associates with cops. At the inaugural panel session on Jan. 15, he spoke about his own personal experience with New Hampshire’s criminal justice system in the early 2000s and the need for law enforcement officers to hold each other accountable when witnessing misconduct.

Lascaze was serving a prison term when a corrections officer repeatedly grabbed him by the cuffs and lifted him off the ground.

“But what was more devastating to me,” said Lascaze, “was not what he was doing, but the four other officers standing there watching, laughing and not doing anything about it.”

His story led to a lively discussion among recruits about police culture and “the chat box was going bananas,” Lascaze said.

A national problem

Frayed relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve, particularly communities of color, escalated since the recent killing of George Floyd and other police brutalities against unarmed African Americans.

Nationally, about half of people shot and killed by police are white, but Black Americans are shot at a disproportionate rate, according to data compiled by the Washington Post. New Hampshire’s data reveals that since 2015, police officers shot and killed 16 men, 13 of whom were white and three of unknown race.

These statistics don’t evoke the outrage they might in other states: compare California, where police shot and killed 873 people, with non-whites representing three-quarters of those individuals.

Nonetheless, New Hampshire’s tamer numbers do little to prove the docility between law enforcement and the state’s minority population.

Attorney Donna Brown of Manchester said that criminal defense lawyers have been trying to educate law enforcement about racial bias since the 1980s because “we’ve had a front row seat to it.”

In her testimony to the LEACT committee, Brown cites at least four instances where the N.H. State Police Mobile Enforcement Unit detained drivers because of their race.

“As one of the troopers from that unit described it,” Brown wrote, “the unit is a ‘proactive policing unit [where they] basically try to stop crimes before they actually occur.’ This is the motor vehicle equivalent of ‘stop and frisk’ that was outlawed in New York City due to its misuse as a tool for racial profiling.”

The goal of implicit bias training is to get individuals to reflect, interact and talk with each other, said Fridell, the national expert. People typically enter the training feeling defensive and sometimes “outright hostile,” she said. They may believe that biased policing is a fiction produced by the media. Yet after a series of dialogues and role-playing, they realize “implicit biases can lead them to be over vigilant with certain groups or maybe under vigilant.”

While efforts to prevent cops from making bias-based judgements have taken root, questions about the proof of such training lingers.

A study commissioned by the New York Police Department and published in July 2020 sought to analyze the effectiveness of a $5.5 million contract with Fridell’s company, which began in 2018 and ended in 2019.

The report suggested the eight-hour training enhanced officers’ awareness of and knowledge about their own unconscious biases and how to manage them. However, the evaluation did not detect a change in behaviors.

“I don’t believe that,” said Clayton Harris, curriculum commissioner for Ohio’s Peace Officer Basic Training for Community Diversity & Procedural Justice and police chief at Cuyahoga Community College.

Training must proceed, he said, alongside a police department’s policies, rules and regulations. Training also has to be repeated on an annual or semiannual basis to influence significant change, he said.

Fridell reiterates the training “can’t be a one-off.” She points out that altering attitudes is an important first step to encourage recruits to open up, listen and assimilate the skills.

Measuring the effect of a single training curriculum on officers’ decisions is not easy to detect, said the study’s author, Rob Worden of the John F. Finn Institute For Public Safety, an independent, non-profit social research organization in Albany, New York. At the time of the training, NYPD was also initiating multiple reforms. “It’s very difficult to tease out from all of the myriad influences on officers’ street-level decisions, the impacts of a single one-day training.”

Worden said the study demonstrated the officers realized benefits after the training, with 70 percent gaining a better understanding of implicit bias and more than two-thirds learning new strategies they could apply to their work.

He speculates that implicit bias training may have a greater influence in less diverse communities such as in New Hampshire. Finn Institute researchers interviewed members of the NYPD force and found they often grew up in multiracial, multi-ethnic neighborhoods, frequently interacting with people different from themselves.

“These are people who arguably benefit less from the training content than officers whose upbringing and prior experience is much less diverse than those of many NYPD officers,” he said.

Curriculum commissioner Harris said that to ultimately improve policing, the profession needs a smarter, connected and more diverse force. Unfortunately, the negative depictions of police are turning away young people, making recruiting difficult. “That’s been a challenge for the last decade or so,” he said.

Recruitment efforts also need to focus on reflecting the communities they serve, including minorities. That’s another challenge for the Granite State, which is less diverse than other parts of the country. However, since 2000, the non-white population in New Hampshire has doubled in size, representing ten percent of residents.

Scippa agrees about the importance of increasing the diversity of law enforcement in New Hampshire. One obstacle is that salaries in the Granite State pale compared to more ethnically-diverse regions in Massachusetts, where he was previously a police academy director.

For now, his focus is on continually refining the two-day implicit biases course and creating an online two-hour version which in-service officers can review at their own pace.

Scippa said he is giving new recruits the tools to be excellent guardians of the community and the Constitution.

“This training sets them up to be more empathetic and effective,” he said.

However, there’s always more he would like to include.

“Presently we’re trying to put 10 pounds in a 5-pound bag here,” Scippa said.

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Brattleboro man arrested in connection with Guilford man's death
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A Brattleboro man has been arrested in connection with the August death of Robert S. “Zach” Phelps III of Guilford, Vt., Vermont State Police announced Wednesday night.

Kaleb Sherman, 39, was taken into custody that evening and faces charges of second-degree murder and aggravated assault, police said in a news release.

Police said Phelps, 43, died as a result of a fight with Sherman at a Guilford home in July.

According to a news release Vermont State Police issued on Aug. 24, a family member of Phelps had informed State Police on Aug. 2 that he was in a coma at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon due to injuries he’d suffered the previous month.

Phelps died at the hospital on Aug. 15, and the N.H. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide due to complications of blunt-impact injuries to his abdomen, according to Vermont State Police.

Per a court order, Sherman was held without bail at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt. He’s scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in the Criminal Division of Vermont Superior Court in Brattleboro.

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Attorneys argue over trial date for man accused of murdering Keene resident
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Prosecutors are pushing for a spring 2022 trial date in the case of the Jaffrey man accused of murdering a Keene resident in September, but his attorneys want to start sooner.

Originally, defense attorneys for 31-year-old Armando Barron had filed a request for an October 2021 court date. But during a virtual dispositional hearing Wednesday before Judge David Ruoff in Cheshire County Superior Court, attorney Caroline Smith said the defense was willing to move that request back to December, but was opposed to the May timeline, citing both her client’s right to a speedy trial and a scheduling conflict in October for Assistant Attorney General Scott Chase.

Prosecutors and Smith say they are also open to negotiating a plea deal, and Ruoff issued an order giving the state 90 days to present an offer.

Smith pointed to the case of Britany Barron, Armando Barron’s wife, who has been charged with falsifying evidence in the murder of Jonathan Amerault of Keene, whom she said she had a relationship with. During a dispositional hearing Monday for Britany Barron, prosecutors said they’d be ready for trial in her case in December, and Smith said the same time frame should be put forth for her husband.

“Since the state had indicated that they might be ready for trial in December with Britany, then I think that they could be ready for trial in December for our client,” Smith said, adding that Britany Barron may not go to trial in December if she is granted bail. “I think, since we’re this far out, that it would be appropriate to schedule it for December, even knowing both can’t go at the same time, because I think the likelihood that the state resolves the other case before this goes to trial is very likely.”

But prosecutors said December is too soon, adding that there is a lot of evidence that has yet to be reviewed. Chase said the December date is unrealistic in Armando Barron’s case, noting that being ready for trial in December on a falsifying evidence case is different from trying a capital murder case.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Benjamin Agati said there are a number of defendants who have been awaiting trial since 2019, while the crimes the Barrons are accused of did not take place until late September 2020. He said scheduling a December trial, when the courts are so backlogged, is an improper use of the court’s time, and counsel’s time.

“We need to have a firm date,” Agati said. “It’s the only fair thing for everybody and so therefore, we feel that May [2022] is much more realistic.”

Armando Barron is accused of using his wife’s phone to lure Amerault, 25, to Annett State Park in Rindge, where he allegedly shot him after attempting to force his wife to pull the trigger, according to Britany Barron’s statement to law enforcement. This took place during the overnight hours between Sept. 19 and 20.

Britany Barron also told police that the pair then took separate vehicles, one of them Amerault’s, and drove north to an unincorporated area in Coos County, where Armando Barron instructed his wife to get rid of evidence. Amerault’s body was discovered at a campsite several days later by N.H. Fish and Game officers. Britany Barron was still on the scene, while her husband had returned to Jaffrey.

Britany Barron was arrested Sept. 24, and Armando Barron was arrested the next day. They have been incarcerated since their arrests, at the Grafton County jail and the Cheshire County jail, respectively.

During Britany Barron’s hearing Monday, prosecutors said they were behind in making her a plea offer due to evidence processing delays, saying that an offer was forthcoming within the month. In opposing the state’s request for a December trial, her attorney, Richard Guerriero, requested a bail hearing, noting she’d already been behind bars for about five months.

“If the situation is she sits in jail until December, that’s a worse punishment than she’d receive if convicted,” he said Monday, adding that he’d be more accepting of a December date if bail is set. He also said that Britany Barron had been severely beaten by her husband just before the murder and is also a victim in this case.

As for a plea offer in Armando Barron’s case, Agati said the state would like to have a chance to review the remaining evidence that is still awaiting lab analysis before making one. He said he could present an offer within 60 days, but added the defense has not indicated it was interested in a plea bargain.

Smith said she would be open to discussing and negotiating such an agreement.