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Wolfeboro police chief speaks up for his department

WOLFEBORO POLICE CHIEF STUART CHASE held a press conference on Friday, May 16, around Noon following the momentous police commission meeting of Thursday, May 15 – which made headlines across the nation and the world – to clarify that the police department and the police commission are two distinct entities and that the views of Commissioer Robert Coupland are not those of his department. (Elissa Paquette photo) (click for larger version)
May 22, 2014
WOLFEBORO — Wolfeboro Police Chief Stuart Chase called a press conference on Friday, May 16, the day following a gathering of historic proportions in the library for a police commission meeting. At issue were publicly spoken racist remarks, aimed at the president, acknowledged and defended by Police Commissioner Robert Copeland.

"I'm here to defend my staff," Chase began. The chief was at pains to distance his department from the views expressed by Copeland, after a morning in which the dispatch center was jammed with hundreds of calls from across the nation and the globe.

Reading from a prepared statement as he faced the microphones and cameras of a Channel 4 News team, reporters for the Union Leader and the Granite State News, and several citizens, Chase said, "The general tenor of the calls or electronic messages is one of shock, anger and disbelief – a sentiment that we, as police officers and public servants, understand. However, many callers have responded with vile, obscene and threatening comments, which are misdirected and as inappropriate as those purported comments made by an elected police commissioner weeks ago."

Chase said that members of the department have been verbally accosted for views they do not share. "The Wolfeboro Police Department does not condone, support, or otherwise share the views and opinions expressed by Commissioner Copeland."

As the story of the meeting has circulated, some far-flung headlines attribute the use of the N word to the chief. He felt compelled to respond and clarify: "The Wolfeboro Police Commission is a three-person board whose duties and responsibilities are defined by New Hampshire RSA. The Commissioners are elected officials who serve three-year terms. Succinctly, they hire, fire, establish compensation and approve the rules and regulations of the police department.

"They are not police officers or sworn employees. Many of those who took the time to share their views have mistakenly assumed this. Further, I am the chief of police, not the commission or a commissioner…" He noted that the commissioners do not work at the Wolfeboro Police Department and have no offices of work space at the department. They meet once a month in the library meeting room.

"This agency is comprised of trained and educated personnel indicative of the finest tradition of professional policing and representing altruism in the finest sense." Chase emphasized that this professionalism extends not only to the uniformed officers but to the dispatch staff as well.

When asked if he liked Mr. Copeland, Chase said that he was surprised to hear the words attributed to him. "That is not consistent with the man I know…He's a retired member of the bar. He has made judicious decisions, and is generous with his resources."

He said he had not talked to Copeland or asked him to resign.

"Is it a matter of free speech, should she (Jane O'Toole) have left it alone?' he was asked.

"She let her conscience be her guide," he responded.

This reporter asked how Chief Chase would respond if one of his officers conducted himself in a manner similar to that of Copeland in this case. "That would be an actionable offense," he said firmly, "punishable by suspension at the least."

Peter Pijoan, Director of Wolfeboro Community Television, filming the press conference, asked if Copeland could be recalled. Chase said the town manager had said that is not provided for in N.H. law.

Later that Friday, May 16, the Board of Selectmen and Town Manager David Owen formally called for Copeland's resignation in a statement posted on the town website, www.wolfeboronh.us.

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