Police chief, sheriff at the vigil

Jessica Garcia / Sentinel Staff

Keene Police Chief Steven Russo, Officer Cristina Paterno and Cheshire County Sheriff Eli Rivera walk with signs reading “We hear you” during a protest in Keene Wednesday.

With dozens of people from a Black Lives Matter rally gathered last Saturday outside the Manchester Police Department, Chief Carlo Capano and other members of the Queen City’s force joined a moment of silence in memory of George Floyd.

At times, the group of demonstrators included some people who were angry and yelling at the officers. They had tough questions for Capano, but he said those questions deserved up-front and honest answers on the spot, so he stayed with the group for an hour; he engaged when appropriate, but other times just being there to listen to their concerns mattered most.

“I explained to them that there is not one police officer at the Manchester Police Department wearing this patch that agrees with anything that happened to George Floyd,” Capano said during a Manchester Police Commission meeting Wednesday morning. “It disgusts us all. It’s a hard video to watch. Under no circumstances should that ever happen. The fact that that person, I won’t even refer to him as a police officer, put his knee on George Floyd’s neck is horrible.”

In a similar statement Tuesday, the N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police also condemned the officers’ actions, which they said “broke the public faith and trust that was given to them when they swore their oath and pinned a badge on their uniform.” The association called Floyd’s death “unconscionable, deeply disturbing and both morally and professionally offensive.”

The video from May 25 is one that police officers throughout New Hampshire and the country have watched with great difficulty and, in some cases, utter horror. Former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin is seen kneeling on the neck of Floyd, a black man in police custody, for nearly nine minutes. He now faces a charge of second-degree murder.

The circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death and the subsequent demonstrations decrying police brutality are prompting conversations daily at New Hampshire police departments about the importance of community policing and building trust with people of all ages and backgrounds, and about the desire for more specialized training on issues of racial inequality and mass protests.

The unrest in the country is also demanding a period of self-reflection for officers as they grapple with what has occurred and find ways to support peaceful protests in their own towns and cities. But they also know that at any time the potential exists for a demonstration to turn violent, and so they’re bracing for that by refining internal procedures that detail when and how to engage with protesters should the need arise.

After observing from afar an extended period of peaceful protest Tuesday night, Manchester police had to put their own plan in action when factions of protesters found their way to South Willow Street and began threatening officers. Capano said at Wednesday’s police commission meeting that members of the group threw glass bottles and water bottles, lit off fireworks, kicked a police vehicle and started two small dumpster fires. In total, more than a dozen people were arrested in an incident that required a local, state and federal law enforcement response.

The department had been on high alert after a social media posting from a young Ashland man called for violence.

Capano and police chiefs in Franklin and Concord said in interviews with the Monitor that they support the peaceful protests but will not stand for acts of violence that threaten public safety.

“My rule of thumb is that if you’re starting to see something get to a point where it could go over the line or bubble into violence or disorderly conduct or someone getting hurt, that’s where we try to step in,” Capano said. “Our priority when we do is to initially try to deescalate, mitigate, try to separate the groups, and not just jump into an enforcement action.”

Manchester Police Commission member Manny Content, a lifelong resident of the Queen City, lauded the police reaction to the large crowds both on Saturday and Tuesday. As a witness to Saturday’s gathering, Content said both sides showed respect to one another, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with or like the message.

“We’re building a relationship with a group of people who we didn’t have a good relationship with,” he said, referring to the department’s efforts to build ties with protest organizers. “I think that’s the only way this nonsense is going to stop.”

Content said the way to respond to peaceful demonstrators is not with police batons or shields but simply by having a presence and listening to them, and that Manchester’s officer did exactly that even when they were screamed at by some people.

Learning opportunities

While demonstrations have not yet spread into some smaller communities north of Manchester, police departments everywhere are paying close attention to any developments both in New Hampshire and nationally. For example, the city of Franklin is a predominately white community but that doesn’t mean it’s been untouched by the events in Minneapolis.

In recent days, Black Lives Matter signs were hung downtown and are now concentrated in an area around the police department. Franklin Police Chief David Goldstein said he was asked at one point if they should be taken down, to which he responded, “No, we should leave them up.”

Goldstein said a similar question was posed to him a while back when a family in town had a sign on their front yard that read “F the police” and drew the eyes of many passers-by.

“One of my councilors asked what I was going to do about it and I said, ‘Absolutely nothing.’ It’s their right, whether it’s pretty or not isn’t the issue,” he said.

Like other officers throughout the region, Goldstein said Franklin’s officers have watched the video of Floyd and news segments of the police response to protests in other states. While those provide for important learning opportunities, an officer’s training is just one piece of the puzzle, he said.

“I can train virtually anyone to do anything. I can take you out to the firing range and teach you how to shoot a gun,” Goldstein said. “Now, I want you to think about using that gun and under what circumstances that level of force would be justified.”

“We can watch videos on YouTube and other police channels all the time, but we have the luxury of doing so from a comfortable chair,” he continued. “While I’m always going to revert to my training to determine how to respond to a particular incident or event, I also need to think through what is happening and the consequences of my actions.”

Goldstein said every officer in New Hampshire learns as part of their training about what are identified as the red, yellow and green zones of a person’s body. He noted that the red zone includes the neck and the head, which officers understand is lethal territory.

Each year, officers in the state are required to undergo use-of-force training. As part of those sessions, they review real-life scenarios captured on video and discuss whether the use of force used by the officer was reasonable or unreasonable. The video of Floyd pinned to the ground telling Chauvin “I can’t breathe” is an obvious example of unreasonable force, said Concord Police Chief Brad Osgood.

“This is a very hard topic for us and truly shakes us to our core,” Osgood said. “As police officers, that’s not in the traditions in the oath of office that we took.”

Even before the most recent events in Minneapolis, Osgood met with the department’s deputy chiefs, sergeants and lieutenants to review a report issued in 2015 by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The task force was established by then-President Barack Obama in response to the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer there.

Osgood said the report holds critical information for effective community policing, which includes building trust, but has been underutilized across the country.

“I’d like to see the current president revisit the task force and look at the report to see if there is anything we can do better,” he said.

Long-term dialogue

With a student-led protest planned for Saturday in the Capital City, Osgood said he has already been in touch with the organizers to learn more about their expectations for crowd size and to determine which roads will need to be temporarily closed to allow for a safe march.

“We’ve had protests recently at the capitol over the governor’s stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, and we support the right to peaceably assemble, a right afforded to them in the Constitution,” Osgood said.

He said the department is still working on a response plan but noted that officers will intervene only if someone is committing an act of violence or if there is a threat to public safety.

“A peaceful protest doesn’t mean that people have to stand around and whisper,” he said. “They can get loud and loud isn’t necessarily not peaceful.”

At recent demonstrations in Manchester, some of the protesters yelled, swore and called officers names, but Capano said taking that feedback comes with the job. He said everyone has a right to express their opinion as long as they do so safely. Saturday, for example, he said he had meaningful conversations that got everyone thinking about next steps.

“Once I started talking with them and answering questions I did start to see a change in behavior,” he said. “I understand that they have a lot of questions for police and its critical that we continue to engage in those conversations.”

He said the most reoccurring question he got last Saturday was “Why don’t you join us?”

“I said, ‘We want to work with you and are willing to work with you at the right time.’ But in that moment, I had a group coming at us, some of them were very clearly anti-police, they were angry and we had to be cautious,” Capano said in an interview after Wednesday’s commission meeting.

“It’ll be a matter of getting the right people at the table to grow the conversation,” he said. “We do need that community dialogue, and I will be at the forefront requesting it.”

This article is being shared by The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.