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Police chief responds to alleged complaints

Asks to see specifics

July 07, 2009
ALTON — Police Chief Phil Smith took a final, unequivocal stand against complaints about the behavior of his officers last week, demanding that a resident who attended the latest in his on-going series of public forums armed with a list of alleged complaints either provide specifics, such as names and dates, or drop the issue.

MaryBee Longabaugh attempted to present a list of complaints she said she had recently recorded on behalf of fellow residents who were hesitant to come forward, but was cut off by Smith, who refused to hear any of the alleged complaints unless Longabaugh was willing to publicly name the individuals and officers involved.

"We have a complaint process," he said, explaining that residents can download the complaint form directly from the town's Web site and either sign their name to it, or submit it to the department anonymously (he added, however, that more credence is given to signed complaints).

Without names, dates, and detailed descriptions of what took place, "I don't want to hear it," he said to Longabaugh, accusing both her and her husband Bob of using the local news media to garner publicity for their personal agenda against the department.

[Editor's note: A letter to the editor from Bob Longabaugh urging residents to appear at the forum with any negative experiences they may have had with the police department appeared in the June 11 issue of The Baysider. It should be noted, however, that it is not our policy to censor letters from readers in any way unless they make unsubstantiated accusations against a specific individual.]

Smith explained that there are three empirical ways to determine how a police department is doing: by looking at its level of activity; the retention rate of officers; and the number of properly-filed complaints it receives (the Alton Police Department, he said, has received none over the past year).

Alton's department, he said, has generated a 15 percent increase in activity since last year.

From 2005 to 2007, he explained, a total of 46 officers passed through the department, a significant rate of turnover.

At the present time, however, the department has 11 full- or part-time officers, Smith said, adding that the department has gained such a solid reputation within the law enforcement community over the past couple of years that people are "lining up" to join it.

If there is a feeling among people in the community that certain officers are behaving in an improper manner, he said, "I need to know who they are."

Resident Richard Doerre (a friend and supporter of former police Lt. Ed Correia, who was fired in the spring of 2007 amid accusations of misconduct, and whose case is currently awaiting an appeal before the state Supreme Court) said he both agreed and disagreed with Smith's comments.

While it would be ideal for residents to come forward and sign their names to complaints, Doerre said, some may be too timid and fearful of reprisals to go public with their accusations.

Doerre also found the chief's assertion that no complaints have been filed against the department this year "tough to swallow.

"I am reminded of elections in the former U.S.S.R.," where the numbers always seemed to favor the ruling regime, he remarked.

Pointing out that a total of three formal complaints were filed in 2008, Smith noted that a drop from three to zero was not abnormal for a small community.

That figure, he said, also correlates with the department's increased activity and visibility.

Advising Smith not to let himself be lulled into a false sense of security by the exemplary behavior his officers display in his presence, Doerre suggested that some of them might give in to what he called "the power of the uniform" when interacting with the public.

"People change when they put [a uniform] on," he said, explaining that while growing up in Nazi Germany during WWII, he saw many good people transform into brutes when given a uniform and placed in positions of power over their fellow citizens.

"You can't whack the whole uniform for a couple of guys," Smith replied, explaining that an officer's attitude toward the public is sometimes colored by his or her training.

When he graduated from the Academy, he said, his father (who also worked in law enforcement) took him for a drive and advised him not to take the gung-ho, clean-house approach favored by his instructors.

Instead, Smith said, his father instructed him to treat people the way he would want a fellow officer to treat members of his own family — a piece of advice that he later passed on to his staff in Alton.

He felt confident, he said, that he could keep a handle on the department, and deliver the level of service townspeople have come to expect.

In response, Doerre commented that in the business world, managers are judged not just on their own performance, but on the performance of their employees, as well.

"You will be measured by your people, not by yourself," Doerre said, adding that he considered it important for Smith to ensure that his officers are not only competent, but also courteous.

"Professionalism," Smith said, trying to sum up Doerre's comments. "That's what I want."

Doerre pointed out, however, that the term 'professionalism' could mean different things to different people.

"A butcher is a professional," he remarked.

Speed enforcement

At an earlier point in the forum, Doerre (who admitted to owning a radar detector) questioned a recent increase in the number of radar patrols he had encountered as he drove through town, asking whether the selectmen had ordered the police department to implement a "revenue enhancement" program.

Pointing out that revenues from speeding tickets go to the state, and not to individual towns, Smith explained that the increased presence of patrols throughout the area was part of a grant-funded "saturation patrol" program involving the communities of Alton, Farmington, New Durham, and Rochester, who have used the grant money to coordinate patrols at certain times of the day.

Still skeptical of the need for increased enforcement, Doerre asked whether speeding had really become an "overwhelming issue" in Alton.

"Yes," Smith replied, adding that several residents had appeared at previous forums to voice their concerns about the violation of speed limits on certain town roads and local state highways.

Describing speed as a "subjective matter," and voicing doubts about the level of enforcement on town roadways, Doerre said that with tourist season in full swing, he was concerned as a taxpayer about word getting around that Alton has become an unfriendly community to outsiders.

Smith estimated that the ratio of warnings to summons issued by his officers was roughly 30:1.

"This is a major throughway, and we want our businesses here to draw what they can draw," he said, adding that the townspeople have been and will continue to be his department's top priority.

"If that is true, my hat is off to you," Doerre replied.

[Editor's note: In a follow-up e-mail to Doerre which was supplied to The Baysider earlier this week by Doerre himself, Smith corrected his estimate, explaining that a total of 3,387 motor vehicle stops were made in Alton during 2008, resulting in 328 summons — a 10:1 ratio. Doerre stated in a reply to Smith that he considered that figure "comforting."]

From bikes to fireworks

Reporting on the department's activities during Bike Week, Smith announced that officers investigated a total of 14 accidents this year (up from last year's total of nine), the most serious involving a collision with a deer on Route 11.

Asking how many of the accidents reported during Bike Week involved motorcyclists who were not wearing helmets, MaryBee Longabaugh said she would be interested to see the correlation between serious head injuries and the victim's decision not to wear one.

Smith did not have that information readily available, but said he could get it in time for the next forum.

Following up on a request from residents who asked at the last forum to see accident data for Busy Corner (the intersection of Route 11 and Rand Hill Road at Alton Bay, near Amilyne's Corner Market), Smith reported that four accidents had taken place there over the past 10 years.

Bob Longabaugh suggested that the police department might be able to request help from the state Department of Transportation in making Busy Corner safer through the installation of stop signs.

Smith said he had contacted the DOT with regard to that issue, and was told that there hadn't been enough "activity" at Busy Corner to warrant stop signs.

Explaining that he had always used his right-hand directional when turning onto Route 11 from Busy Corner, Doerre asked whether vehicles were required to do so under state law.

Smith replied that since the main road (Route 11) bears to the right at Busy Corner, only vehicles heading straight up Rand Hill Road are technically required to signal their intent to drivers behind them with a left-hand directional.

Stating that she had often noticed cars parked in front of the stop sign at the end of Rand Hill Road, resident Nancy Merrill asked whether it was legal for them to do so.

Smith explained that to the best of his knowledge, it is legal unless otherwise posted.

With the Fourth of July coming up at the time of the forum, Merrill asked what her rights would be as a property owner if people vacationing nearby were to set off store-bought fireworks late at night, disturbing her rest.

Explaining that any unlicensed ignition of fireworks would be considered a breach of the peace, Smith advised Merrill to call the business line for the police department (which he said connects automatically to Belknap County Dispatch after regular business hours).

Asked by Merrill (who said she recently witnessed an intense verbal altercation between two couples while trying to enjoy an afternoon at the bay with her grandson) whether he planned to station officers at the bay this summer, Smith replied that a volunteer part-time civilian patrolman will be monitoring the goings-on there, and reporting any traffic violations or breaches of the peace to the department.

At the conclusion of last week's forum, Smith thanked those who attended for their participation in what he described as "the best one yet."

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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